In the late summer of 2019 one of the first announcements of the new Boris Johnson Government was the ‘Towns Fund’. A supposedly ‘new’ plan to regenerate towns that had been ‘left behind’. The fund would support ‘struggling’ towns across England. Civil servants then drew up a priority list of 541 towns based on need and potential for development. Government Ministers then picked a top 40 high priority, a medium-low 61. Bridgwater was in the 101 chosen and is now in a position to ‘bid’ for £25 million. However, there has been much criticism of this process. Of the 541 towns listed in order of deprivation it wasn’t in fact the ‘top’ 101 that were chosen but an odd mix which seemed to mainly include Tory ‘marginals’ and ‘places that voted Brexit’. One Town was ranked 535th on the list and still made it to the top 101. Even the minister in charge of the process, Robert Jenrick, had a concerned finger pointed at him when his own constituency of Newark suddenly found itself included and the cross-party Public Accounts Committee suggested the process ‘might not be impartial or transparent’. The Government of course denied this. And why look a gift horse in the mouth! Bridgwater’s going to be in the money….isn’t it? Shouldn’t we just take the money and run with it?
Leader of Bridgwater Town Council, Brian Smedley (Labour, Westover) says “Sedgemoor District Council is in charge of the Town Deal Fund for Bridgwater and Bridgwater Town Council was marginalised in the process. We believe a Town fund should be run by the Town involved. That sounds obvious. It’s also ironic that the Tories, whose policies of austerity in recent years and de-industrialisation under Thatcher in the 1980s have in fact caused towns like Bridgwater to decline, get ‘left behind’ and thereby need funds like this-but as a right, not as a lottery. We were marginalised in this process yes, but we were allowed ONE delegate on the board and we are incredibly lucky that our man was Councillor Mick Lerry who fought tooth and nail for Bridgwater during their meetings and we think no matter the flaws of the fund, no matter the pretensions the Tories put on this benevolent funding of deprived areas, we think we have managed to get a good deal for Bridgwater out of this rather dodgy deal. And much of that is down to Mick”
The ‘Deal’ for Bridgwater
Cllr Mick Lerry (Labour, Victoria) is the Town Council’s spokesman for Economic affairs and was on the Town Deal Board. Mick says “Bridgwater Town Council have been involved in the discussions of the Town Deal and presented a submission of projects for the Board to consider. The 25 million pounds fund has been earmarked for capital projects with some funding to go on revenue activities. Bridgwater Town Council is pleased with the funding that has been made available to complete infrastructure projects within the Town Centre. This will be an opportunity to save Bridgwater Docks for the community, enhance the Bridgwater Arts Centre in its 75th anniversary year and upgrade Bridgwater Town Hall as a vibrant community hub , support Carnival activities, complete the Celebration Mile and ease traffic congestion. The importance of the Bridgwater Town Investment Plan is to repair and aid recovery from both the pandemic and the economic downturn. Both have had an impact on trade, commerce and leisure within Bridgwater, it will be important to make sure that projects identified will help to animate and support the recovery for the Town Centre.”
Working ‘with’ Sedgemoor
Bridgwater Town Council has agreed to work with Sedgemoor District Council on projects which are mutually beneficial. A statement from Sedgemoor said “Following earlier consultation on our Vision for Bridgwater, an ambitious plan seeking £25 m of government investment was submitted at the end of January. The plan is unashamedly bold and designed to re-energise the town centre whilst also unlocking wider housing and employment growth. If successful, the proposals will help unlock over £160 m of further public and private investment in our town, stimulating billions more in local economic and community benefits.The proposals submitted have been overseen by the Bridgwater Town Deal Board comprising representatives from all tiers of local government together with community and business partners; all committed ambassadors of Bridgwater and its economic potential.”
The SDC statement continues “The plan as submitted claims to broaden and diversify what the town has to offer, making the town centre ‘more family friendly and walkable’. It will inspire residents to develop their own business propositions, galvanise our cultural programme and historic venues, making it exciting and inspiring for residents and visitors and support our existing local businesses to recover from the negative impacts of Covid-19”
What Happens Next?
The next stage of the Town Fund is the Government response to the submission which is due by the end of March. Once funding is approved ‘in-principle’ more detailed work will commence on design proposals alongside wider community engagement to further shape plans to meet local needs.
Cllr Smedley added. “Do we support this? Yes, we have to. But we have to remember why we ended up here?? Remember the Coalition Government closed down the main funding streams to ‘deprived towns’ back in 2010-15 and the Tory governments thereafter continued a brutal austerity programme that further undermined local government by removing Government support grants. So, the money provided now is simply ‘largesse for a purpose’-and we suspect political. The government themselves describes these places as ‘left behind’ towns- yet who left them behind? They did! But its also of course not just new money – in this case it’s a combination of the Stronger Towns fund (1.6bn) and the Future High Streets fund (675m) topped up with 1.3bn, less than 50%, new. It has also been called a ‘Brexit bribe’ as it targeted 94 out of 100 Brexit voting towns. I think the Tories knew Brexit would be a bad thing and this is their way of attempting to cover that up. But, we’ll take it, because we need it and it goes a small way to putting back what was taken from us and these other small towns over the decades anyway.“