Answers to questions in Parliament and a year end statement from the Towns Fund Delivery Partner team, have indicated the state of progress with the government's £3.6 billion Towns Fund Levelling Up project, and how individual submissions are being managed from the 101 eligible towns.
Only a few towns have so far been given formal financial allocations for projects under the scheme, but the deadline is approaching for the submission and assessment of Town Investment Plans (TIPs), and the accompanying business cases from the 101 places that were selected last year to develop proposals for Town Deals in a controversial choice process that has been challenged being politically influenced by ministers ahead of the 2019 General Election (see earlier Civic Revival story).
Earlier in the month, Labour MPs asked government ministers for more detail of allocations so far made, and what the criteria was for them, but neither Luke Hall Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) nor Steve Barclay (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) would say more than that an initial 7 places had received allocations, and announcements would be ongoing of other awards from the £3.6 billion Towns Fund, which includes £1 billion for the Future High Streets Fund.
In 2019, all places shortlisted for the Future High Streets Fund had been given grants of up to £150,000 to develop full business cases with £16.4 million paid out at the end of the year in capacity funding to local authorities from the initial 100 towns selected for Town Deals to establish their Town Deal Boards and develop their proposals. In both cases the money was paid through the lead local authority.
In September 2020, a further £81.5 million was paid in accelerated funding to the lead local authorities for the 101 towns selected for Town Deals. Each town received between £500,000 and £1 million to help them respond to the immediate challenges of Covid-19.
On 27 October 2020, Government announced the first seven places in England set to benefit from up to £178.7 million in new Town Deals: Barrow-in-Furness, Blackpool, Darlington, Norwich, Peterborough, Torquay and Warrington. Work has begun to confirm final funding for these places.
Although asked by Labour's Liam Byrne on December 7, if he will publish 'the 167 projects approved by his Department for financing through the Towns Fund and referred to in section 4.2 of the Spending Review 2020 recently announced by the Chancellor', Steve Barclay, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said 'allocations are ongoing' and simply mentioned the 7 towns to which funds had been initially allocated.
It is increasingly evident how much reference to centralised government-backed advice is being required of the towns in support of their bids.
In May 2020, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) awarded an Arup-led consortium a £7.9 million 1-year contract to provide commercial support to all 101 towns selected for Town Deals to help develop their plans and proposals to bid into the fund. According to the government, this appointment followed 'competitive tender and pre-market engagement exercises', and details about the contract were posted at: https://www.contractsfinder.service.gov.uk/Notice/18a3b1d6-1624-42c4-a0fb-70311c335584.
The Arup-led group also includes Copper Consultancy, Grant Thornton UK LLP, FutureGov, Nichols and Savills.
Under the support and supervision arrangements, a Towns Fund Delivery Partner Support Team and Towns Hub was established and has been working with the candidate bidders. It has now indicated that from the New Year they will be offering new areas of support in new formats to provide guidance and advice during stage 2, while also introducing new services that they 'hope will bring longer-term benefits for the 101 towns eligible beyond the Towns Fund programme'.
The Towns Team, fronted by Town Coordinators, with regional teams of Town Coordinators and Service Specialists, have spent the ensuing months working with the individual towns to provide support through a panel of specialists and experts. The candidate towns were required to develop their TIPs through consultation and participation at the local level, led by Town Deal Boards; including identifying their town’s vision; defining what the future could look like and selecting projects that will help fulfil this vision.
The first batch of bid submissions are due to go in by 29 January 2021, and draft versions are expected to go for comment to the Delivery Partner Team. Learning materials, guidance documents, best practice examples and tips are being made available on its website to help with bid-writing.
The Delivery Partner Team are also developing materials, guidance documents and services to reflect this process and a Stage 2 Introduction pack will be sent to towns in early 2021 to indicate how they can receive help.
In addition to specialists in visioning and project prioritisation; community engagement and monitoring and evaluation, the support team includes specialists in business cases and project management.
The need to share knowledge, best practice and advice between towns, has emerged as a strong theme, says Joanna Rowelle, Arup Director and Senior Responsible Officer, Towns Fund Delivery Partner, in her end-of-year message to the bidding towns.
"With this in mind, we are facilitating new opportunities for you to address common issues and topics collectively and work with colleagues in similar roles in other towns. Our aim is to help you build your connections and networks across local authorities, towns, regions and with other external partners who can offer advice and, in some cases, new funding streams," she says.
"We are also offering access to leadership and governance coaching and platforms for you to share your stories and pride for your town"
Some of the elemens of the centralised support indicated by Joanna Rowelle include:
- Town Working Groups - a series of working groups connecting towns with common challenges or characteristics
- Place Leadership Programme - a coaching programme on place leadership designed to enhance local leadership skills launching next year. The programme is designed to strengthen towns' ability to plan for the longer-term
- Storytelling - a storyteller is being offered "to work with the candidate towns to help them tell the story of their town and the Towns Fund journey", including about the people who are making the Towns Fund bids happen and leading local initiatives for the future.
- Town blogs - the opportunity to share individual town’s experiences, learning and ideas, is being offered through posting of blogs on the hub website that we will put on the website.
- TFDP volunteers - the TFDP partner organisations are offering volunteers to provide career and transition skills support to individual town communities.
A list of all the eligible towns for the Towns Fund can be found on the government's website (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/100-places-to-benefit-from-new-towns-fund; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/multi-million-fund-to-revitalise-country-s-high-streets; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/1-billion-future-high-streets-fund-expanded-to-50-more-areas).