Towns overlooked for the Future High Streets Fund have called the selection process “naked political electioneering” on the part of the government.
Prime minister Boris Johnson announced an additional 50 towns to benefit from the fund last month, raising the total financial aid from £675m to £1bn. However, only one of the ten English local authorities with town centres in the most need of investment, on property adviser Harper Dennis Hobbs’ Vitality Index, was shortlisted.
The towns that did not make the shortlist have accused the prime minister of using the fund to target marginal constituencies, in a bid to encourage voters to view Conservatives more favourably. Research by Harper Dennis Hobbs, found that 43% of the towns added to the fund shortlist are in constituencies with a Conservative majority of less than 5,000. A further 12% had majorities of less than 1,000.
“It enables local politicians to go and knock on doors and say we’re aware that your high street is declining, but we’re doing something about it. It just might tip the balance in marginal locations,” said Jonathan De Mello, head of retail consultancy at Harper Dennis Hobbs.
Of the remaining nine most in need of investment that were not shortlisted, six sit in relatively safe Labour seats that have majorities of more than 10,000.
The identified least “healthy” retail centres are: Walsall, Doncaster, West Lancashire, Rochford, Blaenau Gwent, Inverclyde, Salford, Gedling, Eden and Knowsley.
“It is nothing more than naked political electioneering,” deputy leader of Gedling Borough Council Michael Payne told Drapers. “We haven’t had any in-depth feedback from the government in terms of why [our bid] fell short – which leads to a very dubious question mark over how these decisions are being made.”
Gedling Council has filed a motion to send a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to reconsider Gedling’s inclusion in the Fund and calling for clarification on the selection process.
Paul Dennett, the Mayor of Salford – a constituency with a 19,000-strong Labour majority –- agreed: “It’s very frustrating for Salford to have missed out of this funding round, but as a Labour area we are used to the Tories leaving us out in the cold. Gerrymandered formula for funding is nothing new to the Tories – and it’s no surprise to see the current [prime minister] seeing wealthy seats like Salisbury as being in more dire need than Salford, the 22nd-most deprived local authority area in the country.”
A ministry of housing, communities and local government spokesperson said: “Interest in the Future High Streets Fund has been huge. All applications to the fund were assessed against the same criteria in line with our published guidance.”