Levelling Up funding: Greater Manchester councils spent £1.1m on consultants to bid for government money

Town halls across Greater Manchester paid out £1.1m to consultants to try to obtain money from the government’s Levelling Up funding, an investigation has found.
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Town halls across Greater Manchester have paid out £1.1 million on consultants to help try and obtain Levelling Up funding.

An investigation by the politics newsletter The Northern Agenda has found that at least £23.4m has been paid by councils across the country to consultants, with £1.1m paid out by leaders in Greater Manchester.

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Despite the money paid out by councils on these bids, the successful allocations brought in almost £60m for the region in January.

The successful bids included Wigan and Oldham councils both receiving £20m in January from the government for the restoration of Haigh Hall and to create a ‘Green Technology and Innovation Network’ respectively. Trafford also received £18.3m allocated to the redevelopment of Partington Sports Village.

And, in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Spring budget in mid-March, an influx of money breathed life back into bids that lost out on the first allocation of funding in January. Salford City Council was given a contribution of £5.4m for its plans to redevelop Eccles town centre, Tameside got £19.9m to spend on their levelling up projects to redevelop Stalybridge and Denton town centres and Wigan was awarded £6.6m to help rejuvenate Ashton town centre.

The biggest winner in Greater Manchester was Stockport, who were told they would get £20m for a new community hub with a pool, library, gym, community space and play park in Marple. In his Spring budget to the House of Commons, Mr Hunt also included Oldham and Rochdale in the £400m funding pot designated for ‘levelling up partnerships’.

What each council spent on consultants to improve levelling up bids

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On consultants, Bolton Council said it had directly spent £151,563 on two failed levelling up bids, supported by a grant allocation of £125,000. They added that the costs of consultants for the bids, one of which was for town centre investment and the other for road improvements close to the M61, was partially offset by the capacity grant of £125,000 from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing & Communities.

A council spokesman for Bolton said: “Up to the end of 2022, the council has used all of this funding and has funded an additional £26,563.07 of costs.”

The council added that in terms of council officers working on the bids, it did not categorise staff time spent working on the Levelling Up fund bid and so they were unable to attribute staffing costs so specifically as this would just be one part of their day-to-day jobs.

Compared to Bolton’s £271,563, Wigan spent the next most of any local authority in the Greater Manchester region on consultants at £209,850. Their council submitted four separate proposals, two of which have been successful.

An image included in the Places for Everyone document. Credit: GMCAAn image included in the Places for Everyone document. Credit: GMCA
An image included in the Places for Everyone document. Credit: GMCA
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Aidan Thatcher, director of growth and economy at Wigan Council, said: “Levelling up funding is a fantastic opportunity for Local Councils to lever in additional investment to their local areas. Wigan Council was categorised as a Tier 1 Authority, which meant that central government has contributed £125,000 towards our funding bids, recognising the high demands on council resources.

“To ensure that we are able to put together the highest quality bids with the best chances of succeeding, we sometimes need to use external consultants who are experts in their field. It is a testament to the quality of the bids submitted by Wigan Council that of the four bids submitted to the levelling up fund, two of those have been successful so far.”

The other Greater Manchester councils’ expenditure on consultants were:

  • Tameside – £155,000
  • Trafford -£132,131
  • Oldham £131,596
  • Manchester – £106,716
  • Rochdale £97,052
  • Bury – £40,135

Stockport and Salford have not provided figures at the time of writing.

What have councils said about spending money on consultants for Levelling Up funding?

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A spokesperson for Salford City Council said: “We use specialist consultants sparingly but occasionally investing in outside expertise is in the best interests of the city and the best way to help secure significant investment for Salford.”

A spokesperson for Trafford Council said: “The consultants employed by Trafford Council supported our three Levelling Up fund bids and we ultimately secured more than £18m worth of funding for our proposal to regenerate Partington Sports Village. The consultants worked closely alongside council staff to develop the three bids. The costs were totally covered by £125,000 worth of funding from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) which was specifically to be used for preparing Levelling Up fund bids.”

A number of Greater Manchester councils explained that the cost of proper consultation for these bids has helped bring in far more money than it spent. Oldham Council added that the bidding process was “complex” and experts were needed to help untangle the red tape.

A spokesperson from Oldham Council said: “The Government allocated £125,000 grant funding to the Council to develop the two levelling up bids. The bidding process was complex and required specialist / technical advice, which exceeded the grant allocation by £6,587 – but the consequence was that Oldham was one of only three boroughs in Greater Manchester to successfully be awarded Levelling Up funding.

Haigh Hall is set to be transformed after receiving £20m from the Levelling Up fundHaigh Hall is set to be transformed after receiving £20m from the Levelling Up fund
Haigh Hall is set to be transformed after receiving £20m from the Levelling Up fund
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“That project has a value of £20m and will support the growth of green tech jobs which are critical to improving the socio-economic wellbeing for people in Oldham and will enhance our successful enterprising business economy.”

Tameside and Manchester both also fell foul of the government’s decision not to award round two funding to councils who already received money in round one.

Manchester spent £77,651 on consultants for “doomed” bids, while Tameside spent £75,000.

A Tameside Council spokesperson said: “We spent £155,000 to prepare robust bids for submission to the Government as part of the Levelling Up Fund rounds 1 and 2, which has secured a total of £39.8m of additional external grant funding comprising £19.9m in Ashton town centre and £19.9m in Stalybridge Town Centre. This represents a 25,577 per cent return on the council’s investment.”

Northern Roots Learning Centre, which was part of Oldham Council’s successful Levelling Up Fund bid. Photo: JDDK ArchitectsNorthern Roots Learning Centre, which was part of Oldham Council’s successful Levelling Up Fund bid. Photo: JDDK Architects
Northern Roots Learning Centre, which was part of Oldham Council’s successful Levelling Up Fund bid. Photo: JDDK Architects
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As with some of the region’s other councils, a spokesperson for Manchester City Council said the cost of consultants was covered by a government grant.

“The resource-intensive and competitive nature of bidding to secure potentially millions of pounds from the Government’s Levelling Up fund is such that it requires external support in the form of consultants. That is recognised by the Government which is why the council received £125,000 to cover the cost of the bidding process, including consultancy fees.

“Therefore, this process has not cost the council, or Manchester Council taxpayers, anything other than time spent by officers preparing a bid. Although our Levelling Up bids were not successful on this occasion, we were able to secure £20m for the city in the previous round of bids through the Culture in the City project which will create new tech, media and creative jobs in the city.”

Mark Robinson, Director of Economy at Rochdale Borough Council, said: “The choice facing councils was to either ensure levelling-up bids were submitted in the very short timescales defined by government or risk losing millions of pounds of additional funding. We were identified as a priority one area and encouraged to apply so, like many other local authorities, used consultants to enable us to put together the strongest possible bids in the short time available.

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“Although our bids weren’t successful, the work undertaken helped ensure we were selected to become one of only 20 levelling up partnership areas, which should help us move our ambitious plans forward. The work has also helped us secure alternative funding, including over £30m of CSRTS (city region sustainable transport settlement) money and the combined authority’s brownfield land fund and opened up discussions with other funders.”

Bury Council did not bid for the latest round of Levelling Up funding after having had two successful bids worth £40 million in the previous round of investment.

What have the government and the opposition said?

The Levelling Up Fund was launched by Boris Johnson in 2020 with the aim of investing government money into local infrastructure to support economic recovery. But the bidding process has been heavily criticised, with some likening it to a “beauty pageant” and a “begging bowl culture”.

Lisa Nandy MP, shadow levelling up secretary, said: “This investigation by The Northern Agenda exposes the absurdity of the government’s Hunger Games-style bidding system. Communities have to compete with one another for permission to do what will work for them, with councils forced to spend millions of pounds in the middle of a cost of living crisis in the process.

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“Labour will put an end to this broken system. Through our Take Back Control Act we will undertake the biggest ever transfer of power out of Westminster, putting communities in control of their own destiny and giving local leaders the tools and backing to drive growth in their local economies, without having to go cap-in-hand to Whitehall.”

The failures of the current system have been criticised by all sides, including by the Government itself in the Levelling Up White Paper published a year ago. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove says his department is reviewing the current bidding process and whether it can be streamlined.

As evidence of things changing, Ministers point to the recent devolution deals struck with the mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands giving them a guaranteed £1bn devolved funding pot each to spend as they see fit.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “The use of consultants is a decision for individual councils – we provide clear, straightforward guidance to support those applying for the Levelling Up Fund.

“However, we recognise there are costs associated with bids which is why across both rounds we provided more than £20 million to help councils develop bids.”

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