Rishi Sunak constituency bid raises fears of ‘levelling up’ favouritism | Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak’s wealthy rural constituency is receiving £19m of funding from the government’s latest round of levelling up funding, prompting accusations of favouritism towards Conservative seats.

Catterick Garrison, a small army town in the prime minister’s Richmond constituency in North Yorkshire, will receive money to regenerate its town centre as one of 100 projects awarded a share of the £2.1bn package after months of delays.

More than £670m will go on transport links, £821m on community regeneration and almost £600m to restore local heritage sites with other successful bids including Eden Project North in Morecambe, a new AI campus in Blackpool and rail improvements in Cornwall.

However, the funding round has prompted questions around the fairness of the allocations – the second round from a £4.8bn pot to improve everyday infrastructure that was announced in the 2022 spring statement.

Labour analysis shows that London, which gets £151m, is getting more than both Yorkshire (£121m) and the north-east (£108m), while the south-east (£210m) is the second biggest recipient, allocated nearly twice as much as the north-east.

The biggest regional recipient is the north-west, which receives £350m of the funding pot, and is where the Conservatives are most vulnerable to losing marginal seats to Labour.

The announcement also includes projects that have little to do with levelling up, such as £45m – the sixth highest award – to improve the flow of traffic on the roads leading to Dover, which currently comes under Operation Brock and aims to ease pressure at the border with the EU.

An initial £1.7bn was allocated through the bidding process in 2021, but projects it funded have since been hit by soaring inflation, with some delayed as a result. Two-thirds of bids in the first round were rejected including in the most deprived authorities, such as Blackpool, prompting questions over the methodology used.

Some Conservative MPs, particularly those in “red wall” seats, have been concerned that Sunak is failing to prioritise levelling up – one of Boris Johnson’s key election promises at the 2019 general election – and fear that he could lose them votes as a result.

Downing Street denied reports on Wednesday that Tory MPs in marginal seats had been told to stop using the phrase “levelling up” ahead of the next election because voters did not know what it meant – and instead use “stepping up” or “enhancing communities”.

Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, said: “We are firing the starting gun on more than a hundred transformational projects in every corner of the UK that will revitalise communities that have historically been overlooked but are bursting with potential.

“This new funding will create jobs, drive economic growth, and help to restore local pride. We are delivering on the people’s priorities, levelling up across the UK to ensure that no matter where you are from, you can go as far as your talents will take you.”

Analysis suggests that of 151 local authority areas, only eight have not experienced real-terms cuts since 2018 even when levelling up funds, including those just announced, are factored in. The other 143 have still had real-terms cuts.

Shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy described the allocations system as a “Hunger Games-style contest” that pitted communities against one another and where Whitehall ministers picked winners and losers from the funding bids.

“The levelling up fund is in chaos, beset by delays and allegations of favouritism – 15 months after the first round of allocations, just 5% of the money has made it to the communities who were promised it,” she said.

“It takes an extraordinary arrogance to expect us to be grateful for a partial refund on the money they have stripped out of our communities, which has decimated vital local services like childcare, buses and social care.”

Tory whips said there was no plan for an oral statement in parliament on Thursday, with ministers relying on a written one instead, prompting concerns that ministers were seeking to avoid difficult questions. The Guardian understands that if no minister comes to the dispatch box, Labour would apply for an urgent question instead.

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