Ministers must stop making council leaders “plead on bended knee” for vital funds if “levelling up” is to work, the government’s infrastructure adviser has said.
Sir John Armitt, the chair of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission, said town halls in England should be given £30bn to spend on transport projects over the next five years.
In what will be read as a message to Michael Gove, the new secretary of state for levelling up, he called for a radical change to the “inefficient and ineffective” system of councils bidding for multiple pots of ringfenced money from Whitehall.
He said: “It will be quite a radical change, I accept that. But we’ve had a secretary of state just moving into MHCLG [the now-rebranded Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities] who is known for having radical thoughts and challenging the status quo, so hopefully this won’t land on deaf ears.”
Armitt, who previously ran the body that delivered the London Olympic Games, said the government should axe the 15 different funding streams for local transport and instead hand more spending and powers to England’s 74 county and unitary authorities.
In what would be the biggest change to local government funding in decades, he suggested giving each council mayoral powers over transport and overall funding of £6bn a year to develop long-term transport plans over the next five years.
This would equate to a 40% increase in the budget for England’s buses and trains outside London.
Neil O’Brien, the MP who is writing a white paper on levelling up to be published within weeks, became a minister at the DLUHC along with Gove during the reshuffle.
Levelling up is the cornerstone of Boris Johnson’s domestic policy but the announcements so far have failed to match the rhetoric.
The appointments of Gove and O’Brien – as well as that of Nadhim Zahawi as education secretary – have given local leaders hope that the prime minister will soon announce bold policies to help close the gap between London and the rest of the UK, rather than the piecemeal funds and woolly speeches that have typified the programme so far.
Johnson has hinted vaguely at elected mayors, such as those who represent big urban areas such as the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, being extended to counties and towns but only in areas deemed pro-business.
Armitt said suburban areas and towns, home to 31 million people in England, were being held back because Whitehall controls the purse strings. “Local leaders have got to go and plead on bended knee with London to get the money to be able to deliver what they promised at a local level,” he said.
“The devolution on a regular basis of funds to the regions and local authorities just seems to be the obvious way to go.”
The National Infrastructure Commission is the government’s adviser on large-scale projects and is an executive arm of the Treasury.
In a report published last week, which was commissioned by the government in March, the body said ministers “need to pivot away from a reliance on centrally controlled pots of money for which councils must compete”.
Armitt said the “prize” for Johnson’s government was to be able to show at the next election that it was committed to improving life chances by devolving powers and money to the local level.
“I don’t think anybody’s in disagreement here. It’s one of those questions of, is the spirit willing and the flesh weak? Well, in this case we want the flesh to be strong and not weak,” he added.