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EXCLUSIVE: Exasperation at rules for new high street cash

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A ‘threatening’ letter has been sent to council chief executives demanding that they spend their slice of a £9.75m pot allocated for a high street community clean-up, and giving them little more than a week to do so.

The letter, seen by LGC, explains that the funding, announced yesterday, should be used to work with community groups to undertake existing community-led street and town centre cleans. Councils are to get between £2,000 and £195,000, depending on population size.

But the letter, from the Ministry for Housing Communities & Local Government, was only received by chief executives yesterday evening, and councils have only been given until the end of the current financial year to spend the money.

One senior local government source commented: “I’ve had pints of milk that have lasted longer than this funding.”

The letter goes on to imply that councils which do not use the cash could be frozen out of future funding decisions. It states: ”We may take this into consideration if local authorities do not spend this money for its intended purpose, including when we make regeneration funding decisions in future. Other teams within the ministry will be notified.”

The letter comes as many councils are waiting to hear whether their bids for the £675m future high streets fund have been successful.

Tony Travers, the director of the Institute of Public Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), said: “It’s hard to think of more powerful evidence of how hyper-centralised England has become – this is a tiny amount of money which has to be spent in a little over a week – with strings.

”The allocation contains an implied threat that if councils don’t use the money in exactly the way Whitehall wants they will be ruled out of receiving future funding streams.

“This is £9.75m for services that have been cut as a result of austerity since 2010.”

Suggested uses for the money detailed in the letter include shovels, brushes and high visibility vests, which led to one senior local government source responding: ”so the government are asking councils to fund a British gilet jaunes!”

The letter also recommends that councils use up to 10% of the £9.75m grant for “evaluation and completion of monitoring” , which one council chief executive described as ”£975k being spent on bureaucracy accounting for it”.

He continued: “And god knows what [will be spent] within the ministry reading our submissions to see whether they are going to be pleasantly surprised or ‘disappointed’…. I can’t imagine another country where there is a specific department within a central ministry looking at either local tax or local high streets. Shows just what a crazily centralised country we are.”

Graeme McDonald, managing director of Solace, said that although extra funding is “always welcome”, it is “very hard” for councils to provide the best possible value from the public pound when it is “one-off pots of cash”, particularly when given a tight timeframe. He added: “Councils need significant change in the next spending review which delivers confidence about the total level of funding and enables the smooth, deliberate transformation of services.”

Tom Stannard is corporate director for regeneration and economic growth at Wakefield MDC, one of the councils currently bidding for a slice of the government’s £675m future high streets fund. Although he welcomed more funding from government, Mr Stannard pointed out that the funding is a “small contribution” of £59K against his council’s overall budget requirement of over £42m for environment and streetscene in Wakefield this year.

”We would hope that government approach any conditionality of this £59K sensibly in the context of substantial reductions in funding in recent years that have affected this budget,” he added. ”Fundamentally, we are supportive of SOLACE and SIGOMA’s calls for a more joined up and sustainable approach to funding for local authorities under the new comprehensive spending review.”

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We recognise that this is a challenging time for many retailers on our high streets. That is why the government is taking action to support councils’ efforts to keep our high streets buzzing. This £9.75 million funding will give local authorities an opportunity to do more, with community-led approaches to street clean-ups.”

 

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