Levelling Up …. What’s the Secret?

Amid great trumpets and fanfare, we have been told that the Conservative Administration of Cannock Chase District Council have been successful in a bid for £20million to “Level Up” Cannock. But the details of this money and how it will be spent still remains a secret kept away from Councillors like myself and known only to an elite few Councillors and Officers at the District Council and possibly a few of their mates.

I have written to the “Leader” of the Council Olivia Lyons and the Council CEO and Monitoring Officer on two separate occasions to ask for details, even if these details are to be held by Councillors as confidential due to any commercial or other sensitivities, to be told on both occasions that it is too secret to be trusted to Councillors outside this elite cabal. I first wrote to Cllr Lyons and officers after the “Leader” claimed to have liaised with Councillors about the bid in her announcements to Full Council in July but was informed then that “the application remains confidential” and “as soon as we are in a position to do so we intend to share the scheme with all members.” Following the announcement of the successful bid in the Government’s announcements about the Budget and subsequent press release by the District Council I wrote once more to Cllr Lyons to ask for details of the scheme as the briefing note to Councillors again shared no details of the scheme and indeed a consultation was now underway to get feedback on what the community wanted from the bid. This is odd because the bid could ONLY be submitted if there was a fully worked up scheme, which had the support of the local MP (more on that later) and which showed Stakeholder engagement & support, clearly demonstrating the case for investment and is aligned to the local and national context. Surely the community of Cannock and indeed more widely across Cannock Chase are stakeholders and should have been involved in constructing a bid for levelling up the area.

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/992647/technical-note-for-application-form.pdf

So back to why MP support is pivotal to the success of a Levelling Up bid. When the levelling up agenda was announced at the beginning of the year, areas across the Country were categorised and prioritised by a Government department and Cannock was given a lower priority of category 2 hence a bid is less likely to be successful if submitted as other areas were deemed as being more important. I raised this specific concern at a ministerial briefing in March as part of my Local Government Association role given the list of areas with a higher priority included towns and cities around us like Walsall, Wolverhampton, Birmingham.

My understanding at the time, when the District Council was under a minority Labour administration, was that our MP would not be supportive of any bid as we were determined as being a lower priority and whilst a potential scheme (regeneration of the multi-storey car park was stalled but worked up and ready to submit as an application) could be submitted without the local Conservative MP backing, a bid from a local Labour Council, it would not be successful.

Roll on three months and the extraordinary success of the local Conservative party in the May elections and them assuming control of the District Council. Miraculously a U-Turn by our MP to support a bid. Now as I said I have absolutely no idea what bid was submitted in a rush in June as I and other Councillors have not been informed of any details whatsoever, but my suspicion is that it would be centred around the aforementioned regeneration of the Multi Storey Car Park in Cannock – a scheme which was conceived and developed under the previous Labour administration by officers (a scheme I have grave misgivings about). Why do I think it might be this scheme? well as I said in my previous blog this new Conservative administration is devoid of its own ideas and has only appropriated the ideas, projects and activities already underway by the Labour administration that was voted out in May.

I welcome investment into all our communities and £20million is not to be sneezed at however any investment should be informed by the needs or wants of the community, it should be open and transparent, and it should be reflective of a vision for a prosperous Cannock Chase for everyone.

I was told multiple times when I opposed the Mill Green Retail Outlet Village that this would transform Cannock and the private investment would bring Cannock back to its former glory. Whilst I acknowledge it has proved to be a popular destination so far and they are planning for phase two with more shops and a multi-storey car park of their own, there are no signs of consequential benefit for our communities and town centres and additional investment is now needed.

Cannock still needs change and it is evidently struggling to attract investment, shoppers and leisure seekers but we see the success in Hednesford by contrast where a small group of Independent Councillors supported by an active, engaged community are shaping a successful regeneration of the town on a fraction of the budget gifted to Cannock and even with the unequal distribution of Covid recovery money going mostly to Cannock. The lack of vision and the political sterility of ideas are causing continued general harm to the town of Cannock. Elsewhere in the District we see the evident blossoming of communities in Rugeley, Brereton, Norton Canes, Chadsmoor, Bridgtown and Heath Hayes where residents are listened to  and leadership is emerging from within the community to fill the void left by party political ideology.

Cannock certainly does need investment and the Levelling Up Fund may form part of that but why can’t we know what the plans are? Why is there a consultation on how to spend the fund when the bid for a specific scheme has been submitted and approved? What is the vision for the future of Cannoc? Seemingly simple questions not being answered which leads to a final question, why can’t these questions be answered?