James Heappey MP seems guilty of stabbing his constituents in the back after a last-minute intervention which threatens to derail a £20m bid for levelling-up funds. The plan, put together by Conservative-controlled Sedgemoor Council and LibDem-led Mendip, proposes substantial investment in a green transport corridor connecting communities from Wells in the east to Highbridge on the coast. It offers both a boost to sustainable tourism and car-free transport options for local commuters, including building on the long-established ‘Strawberry Line’ project.
In a statement justifying his refusal to endorse the project, however, Heappey states that the bid “is unimaginative” and unlikely to succeed, given the strong competition for funding from other towns. He is apparently ‘dismayed’ that the councils have ignored his advice that their proposals will not find favour with the minister. It is probable that without the endorsement of the local MP, the bid will fail.
To his credit, Heappey is at least clear about what would, in his view, constitute a more imaginative bid, capable of boosting economic development in local communities. The novelty of the idea may surprise you.
Astonishing as it may seem, his statement asserts “This bid should have prioritised a parking solution and improvements to the road layout that would have opened the door for huge growth in visitors without causing mayhem on Cheddar’s roads.”
To think that what is needed for economic development is simply bigger roads and more car parks would have been unimaginative, out-of-date thinking in the last century. To pursue yesterday’s solutions in the context of climate change and the energy crisis is to be spectacularly out of touch. With areas of the Somerset coast and the low-lying Somerset Levels likely to be among the first to experience adverse impacts of our changing climate, one might have expected a local MP to have at least a glimmer of understanding.
One wonders whether Heappey, having been tipped off that the bid is unlikely to be approved, is simply finding a reason to blame local authorities for his constituents’ loss, rather than his own lack of political clout.
The fact that ill-thought-out comments from one MP are likely to undermine the hard work of dozens of local officials and elected councillors illustrates the deficiencies of the whole ‘levelling-up fund’ approach. Public investment in local amenities is best planned by locally accountable representatives in a stable funding environment. The levelling-up fund, like ‘City Deals’, offers an opaque and ad hoc process whereby much time and consultants’ fees are expended in a bidding process with unclear guidelines and an unpredictable timescale.
Moreover, levelling-up funds have to be spent quickly, prioritising quick fixes over sensible planning. Even if Heappey’s car-centric priorities were correct, the timetable is far too tight to allow any significant road scheme to be planned, designed and delivered. No wonder the Public Accounts Committee has been damning in its criticisms of the scheme. As its chair said,
“Without clear parameters, plans or measures of success it’s hard to avoid the appearance that government is just gambling taxpayers’ money on policies and programmes that are little more than a slogan, retrofitting the criteria for success and not even bothering to evaluate if it worked.”
The purpose behind the levelling-up fund is clearly political, allowing the current administration to direct funds on the basis of patronage rather than need. If further proof were needed, on 5 July 2022 Rishi Sunak openly admitted that the Conservatives have diverted funds from deprived areas to more affluent constituencies. The fact that hapless Heappey’s constituents will nevertheless lose out this time might explain his enthusiasm to apportion blame to others.
As well as a vehicle for pork-barrel politics, a scheme like the levelling-up fund offers a consolation prize for MPs who have, in large part, allowed their role as legislators to become wholly subordinate to the executive. Instead of framing legislation and holding the executive to account, MPs in the governing party act largely as lobby fodder while opposition MPs are all but ignored. They can, however, decide which town centres get hanging baskets. Or car parks.
As we have said before, MPs should be fixing policy, not potholes.
James Heappey may only be a political heavyweight in physical terms, but nevertheless he has a serious ministerial role. He is Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence which, in present circumstances, ought to occupy the whole of his attention. Instead, he finds time to offer his antediluvian ideas on matters far better left to local government and to frustrate the best efforts of local community leaders. It is a condemnation both of his judgement and the levelling-up fund process.