Rishi Sunak has been accused of “divide and rule” tactics after his own constituency was made a priority for the government’s levelling up fund.
The district of Richmondshire is listed as a category one area which will be given preference by the government when it is deciding which areas to give cash from the £4.8bn fund. The district falls entirely within chancellor’s Richmond parliamentary seat.
In a prospectus published alongside his Budget, Sunak said the fund was intended to support investment in places “where it can make the biggest difference to everyday life, including ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and coastal communities”.
But Richmondshire, a mainly agricultural area which also attracts tourism as it covers a large part of the Yorkshire Dales, is one of the least deprived areas in England, ranking at 251 out of 317 on the government’s own index of deprivation.
Treasury sources said Sunak had no sight of the specific areas that would be deemed high priority for the levelling up fund, although ministers were able to see a provisional map showing how the cash would be spread under the categories.
Sheffield City Region mayor Dan Jarvis questioned why Richmondshire was prioritised over the city (93nd on the deprivation index) and nearby Barnsley (38th), which are both in category two.
He accused the government of pursuing a “divide and rule” approach, highlighting that Sunak also used the budget to announce a new Treasury campus in Darlington, which neighbours his Richmond seat.
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Jarvis said: “A cursory glance at the government’s criteria for the levelling up fund is symbolic of their divide and rule approach.
“The chancellor has identified his own Richmond seat as ‘category one’ and relocated his Treasury office to a neighbouring constituency, but has labelled places like Barnsley and Sheffield as ‘category two’ – pushing them to the back of the queue for economic support.
“Ministers must change their approach, or they will put the country on course for a deeply divided recovery.”
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) placed areas into three categories according to their need for economic recovery and growth, for improved transport connectivity, and for regeneration.
The controversy comes following concerns that the towns fund, also run by MHCLG, was targeted at key marginal seats the Tories wanted to win in the 2019 general election.
Asked at a Downing Street press conference if he was using the levelling up fund for “naked pork barrel politics”, Sunak said: “The formula for the grant payments for the new fund to give them some capacity funding to bid for projects is based on an index of economic need, which is transparently published actually I think by MHCLG based on a bunch of objective measures.”
He went on: “And remember, that’s only areas that have received some capacity funding to bid – no area is excluded for bidding it’s just that those areas on the basis of this formula might need a bit of extra help, so we’re giving those local areas some money to put their bid together to help them.”
Labour’s shadow communities secretary Steve Reed said: “Just months after the government was criticised for diverting funding away from towns that desperately needed it, we discover that cabinet ministers own constituencies now stand to benefit ahead of more deprived areas.
“This government should be investing to rebuild the foundations of our economy, but they’re pulling the country further apart by pitting regions and nations against each other for crucial funding then diverting the money to serve their own party’s needs.”