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Levelling-up funding plan branded a 'bad joke' as Highlands set to lowest priority for new UK government funding

By Scott Maclennan

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Highland MPs have branded new UK government funding as a “bad joke” after the region was placed at the back of the queue to access the cash.

It means the region is at risk of losing out in a share of the so-called Levelling-Up Funding worth £4.8 billion overall, with around £432 million expected to come to Scotland.

The government claims the move is the “biggest change to the way we support local economic growth in a decade” as it seeks to make good on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s election promise to improve the economic performance across the UK.

The competitive fund is issued by local authority area, with each council having to bid into it for cash – those bids will be filtered by areas determined to have the greatest need having a higher priority.

Three characteristics will be used to determine each area’s priority: the need for economic recovery and growth; the need for improved transport connectivity; and the need for regeneration.

The Highlands has been placed in Category 3 – that is the lowest of all and carries significant financial obstacles to accessing the cash – despite being geographically the largest local authority in the UK with major connectivity issues.

For example, those areas in Category 1 are expected to receive funding to develop a bid, such as surveying or engineering work to get cash for road improvements.

Why the north has been downgraded from a higher status of need that it had under EU funding to the lowest under the new UK criteria is not clear, as the methodology has not yet been released by the Treasury.

In a rare show of unity, all three Highlands MPs slammed the move and immediately called for a rethink to the criteria amid accusation that the Highlands will be left behind.

Far north MP Jamie Stone said: "The UK government's map showing the areas of greatest need for the levelling up fund shows the Highlands as being of the lowest priority.

“This has to be a bad joke given the poor connectivity in many parts of the Highlands and a need for infrastructure investment that is there to be seen by everyone.

Jamie Stone said he would raise the issue in the House of Commons.
Jamie Stone said he would raise the issue in the House of Commons.

“The UK government must rework their maps as a matter of priority, and I shall raise this matter at the first opportunity in the House of Commons."

Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey MP Drew Hendry was furious at the news coming as it does with the imminent loss of EU cash.

“Already set to lose at least £160 million due to their reckless Brexit, our region now faces losing even more funding at this Tory government's hands,” he said.

“With this latest decision, they make it crystal clear they neither understand nor care a jot about Highland communities.

“They are following the John Major script from the 1980s by blatantly robbing funds from where it's needed in the Highlands to pour it into Tory constituencies, to prop them up in future elections.

“It is a disgrace, and the loss of this funding will profoundly damage the Highland region. Everybody can now clearly see why we cannot trust these charlatans.”

The SNP’s Westminster leader and Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Ian Blackford said: “The fact is that this funding is to replace funding that we had previously from the European Union and any spending was done in consultation with the Scottish Parliament working with local authorities to make sure we were setting the priorities against people’s needs.

“Here we have the UK government ignoring the Scottish Parliament, ignoring the fact that people were sent to the Scottish Parliament to represent our interests and are going above the heads of the Scottish people with zero consultation.

“That really does show that the Tories are completely prepared to ignore democracy, to ignore the wishes of the Scottish people at the ballot box.

“Of course we welcome investment but investment should be set against the priorities that the people of Scotland set, not the priorities of Boris Johnson.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “The UK government is committed to levelling up across the whole of the United Kingdom to ensure that no community is left behind, particularly as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“That is why we are now making the biggest changes to the way we support local economic growth in a decade, in order to regenerate our town centres and high streets, support individuals into employment, improve local transport links and invest in local culture, while giving communities a stronger voice to take over cherished local assets that might otherwise be lost.

“This will involve the UK government decentralising power and working more directly with local partners and communities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who are best placed to understand the needs of their local areas and more closely aligned to the local economic geographies to deliver quickly on the ground.”

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