Rural areas 'overlooked' in post-Brexit levelling up funds

Large swathes of rural areas are now seen as a low priority for levelling up funds, the Rural Services Network says
Large swathes of rural areas are now seen as a low priority for levelling up funds, the Rural Services Network says

The way in which the government is allocating funds for its flagship 'levelling up' programme is failing to properly recognise the needs of rural communities, according to new research.

The Rural Services Network, a special interest group advocating rural services, has found that prioritisation of the levelling up fund has favoured non-metropolitan urban locations.

This is especially true in northern England’s ‘red wall’, while many other areas of similar need are overlooked.

Large swathes of rural central and southern England - and indeed northern rural areas - including those that received funds through previous EU-backed programmes, are now seen as a low priority.

Only 18 rural districts were placed on the government’s priority list of 123 local authorities for its levelling up fund.

The research shows that the number should have been as high as 27 if low standards of living in rural communities were properly accounted for.

The report’s authors said: “The levelling up fund is the latest in a line of UK government-funded programmes to disadvantage rural communities – partly the result of Whitehall’s choice of data on which they make their selections.

“Although detailed, the government’s complex algorithms for allocating funds remain partial, judgemental and, too often, confused.

“The fund prioritisation framework, for example, considers the number of empty commercial properties, but does not account for the quality of schools.

"It looks at physical connectivity but does not take into account digital connectivity like broadband speeds or availability.”

The report calls for a new, transparent process for the geographical prioritisation and allocation of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which launches next year to replace regional economic development funding previously distributed under EU programmes.

The authors recommend that future levelling up funds, including the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, should be allocated between local authorities on the basis of an assessment of living standards achievable by people living and working in each district.

Graham Biggs, chief executive of the Rural Services Network, said the way in which government allocated spending spatially was 'failing' to unlock the opportunities rural areas could offer to the nation.

“Whitehall needs to keep it simple. Allocate funds to where living standards, and economic opportunities, are lowest – regardless of whether these are in the North or the South, or in towns, cities, conurbations or in countryside.

“The process simply needs to be fair, transparent and demonstrably based on need," he said.