Tories' levelling-up funds are a wasteful and bureaucratic version of the National Lottery – Brian Wilson

Good luck to Kilmarnock which will refurbish its Palace Theatre, to Cumbernauld which will knock down its town centre, and to Macduff which will revamp its aquarium. Ditto to seven other Scottish locations.

None of that detracts from the fact that this adapted version of the National Lottery‘Levelling Up’ – is a terrible way to distribute money which is supposed to replace the former EU structural funds. As in every tombola, there are at least ten losing tickets for every winner.

As usual, the decision-making is centralised and unexplained. Local authorities submit their bids and, in this case, it is the UK Government’s Department of Levelling Up and Communities, which has set up an office in Edinburgh, that makes the decisions.

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The Scottish Government is in no position to complain since it behaves in exactly the same way through innumerable centrally-controlled funds, distributed like alms to the poor by caring, sharing ministers, while the appropriate level of government – local authorities – is starved of cash.

Rishi Sunak visited Morecambe to promote the latest round of levelling-up grants (Picture: Owen Humphreys - WPA Pool/Getty Images)Rishi Sunak visited Morecambe to promote the latest round of levelling-up grants (Picture: Owen Humphreys - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak visited Morecambe to promote the latest round of levelling-up grants (Picture: Owen Humphreys - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

When Richard Lochhead, the relevant Scottish Government minister, complained about the distribution method for Levelling Up money, it was not on grounds that it should be determined in the cities and regions of Scotland, but that it should go through the Scottish Government so they could put their own stamp on it.

Scotland has not been short-changed. Of the £2.2 billion distributed, £177 million is coming north of the Border which is slightly above our per capita entitlement. On the other hand, many needful parts of Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, have ended up with nothing at all.

It is very difficult to equate the outcome of this funding spree with any coherent philosophy of addressing structural disadvantage, either in Scotland or the UK as a whole, and that was the purpose of structural funds. The clue was in the name.

They were intended to create infrastructure on which to build lasting change but have been replaced by another large pot of money to fund projects, the more eye-catching the better, each perfectly worthy but set within no obvious wider rationale.

Most still need to put together bids to other funds, each with different criteria and timescales and involving a huge amount of work. For public bodies, this is a significant burden but for community organisations it is almost impossible. Then at the end of the day, someone in Edinburgh with whom there has been no direct contact makes decisions without the slightest need to account for them.

In the area I am most familiar with, the Highlands and Islands, there used to be a better way. The Highlands and Islands Partnership Programme which dealt with the EU structural funds brought together local authorities and other key stakeholders. A list of regional priorities was argued over and agreed.

At that point, the rest of the funding jigsaw fell into place and huge progress was made, with particular benefit to the most peripheral areas facing challenges of poor communications and depopulation. It was a model that worked extremely well. That is what “structural funding” should be about and how priorities should be determined and coherently implemented.

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When they came into government, one of the SNP’s early actions was to close down HIPP and a similar partnership in the south of Scotland in order to take all EU funding under direct control, so it could be branded “Scottish Government”. They are the last people entitled to complain about UK ministers doing the same thing, but that simply means both are wrong.

All this is against the background of council budgets being ruthlessly cut by the Scottish Government. If these post-EU funds are not going to be “structural” at all, but simply money for random projects peppered around the country, would it not be better for the future if decision-making was devolved to local authorities, on an individual or regional basis, to set their own “levelling-up” priorities?

The result would be less wasteful bureaucracy, fewer false hopes raised, a far more effective way of distributing the money – and a lesson to the Scottish Government in what devolution actually means.



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