Lancashire County Council is in the final stages of drawing up a submission to secure the cash from a nationwide pot which was established to finance projects designed to reduce inequalities between different parts of the country.
If the money comes Lancashire’s way, Burnley, Rossendale, Hyndburn and Pendle will benefit from schemes which could include offering bus passengers real-time journey information while they are waiting at bus stops and the creation of new cycling routes.
It comes after the county council decided to focus its application on Lancashire’s eastern boroughs, having whittled down around 600 potential schemes county-wide to select a handful which it hopes have the best chance of winning government support.
District and standalone councils across Lancashire were first invited to bid for up to £20m each under the initiative when it was launched last year – with Burnley and Pendle councils having already been successful in that first round of applications. However, as a transport authority, County Hall was eligible to bid for more than twice that amount for a travel-themed bid.
Like several borough authorities in Lancashire, the county council sat out the first opportunity to apply, but is now poised to pitch during a second funding window, which closes on 6th July.
Although details are still being finalised, a meeting of the authority’s cabinet heard that the focus will be on three thematic projects to upgrade public transport facilities, promote active travel by encouraging cycling and walking and to develop so-called “liveable neighbourhoods”.
Cabinet member for highways and transport Charlie Edwards said that the idea of that concept was to create communities where people could “go to work, go to school, go to [their] GP [and] go to the shop[s] within a 20 minute or half-an-hour journey…where you maybe don’t need to use your car all the time [and] where you can hop onto a cycle path or you just live in a better-designed place”.
Specific schemes are likely to include the installation of 115 priority bus stops, featuring up-to-the-minute information displays and audio announcements – similar to those found at railway stations – while 20 traffic light-controlled junctions on key bus routes will be fitted with “intelligent priority” technology to help speed journeys.
Accrington railway station will also get an overhaul, with a new pedestrian bridge and lifts to both platforms.
Meanwhile, eight cycling and walking corridors will benefit from footpath widening, shared and segregated cycle and pedestrian provision, surface upgrades and new controlled crossing points. Similar improvements – along with secure cycle parking and new lighting, seating, planting – will be made within eight neighbourhood areas.
Four new mobility hubs will also be created to facilitate shifts between public transport and active travel options within the same journey. The facilities will boast a minimum of secure cycle storage, ticketing information, seating, shelter, lighting and CCTV – and there is the potential for them also to include delivery lockers, cycle repair workshops and electric vehicle charging points.
The county council’s cabinet has committed to the authority providing £5m of match funding to create an overall £55m package – although attempts will be made to secure some of the additional cash from third parties.
The government will assess Levelling Up Fund bids according to a variety of criteria, including public benefit and the degree to which they support efforts to achieve net-zero carbon goals.
It is not known when an announcement will be made about which round 2 bids have been successful, but Lancashire County Council is working on the basis that it is likely to come during the chancellor’s budget in the autumn.
It is expected that the authority’s bid will have cost £600,000 to produce by the time it is submitted – out of a £1m fund previously authorised for developing the proposal and generating an outline business case.
Cabinet members have now given the go-ahead for the remaining £400,000 to be spent on further design work for the planned schemes after the application has been made – but before it is known whether the government will back them.
County Hall has opted to spend the additional cash at its own risk, because of the tight timeframe for using a Levelling Up Fund grant once it is issued. The government expects funded projects to be completed by March 2025 or, in exceptional cases, March 2026 – meaning that the county council’s proposals have to be at the most advanced stage possible when the announcement comes about whether its bid has succeeded.
The timescales involved also meant that it was not possible for the authority to base its bid on a major road or bridge scheme.
Burnley’s successful round 1 bid scoopeed £19.5m and will see the expansion of the University of Central Lancashire’ s campus in the town, upgrades to Manchester Road railway station and improved links between the town centre and Turf Moor.
Pendle’s first-round levelling up grant of £6.5m will be spent on transforming Colne town centre.
WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF LANCASHIRE?
Lancashire County Council says that it has focused its Levelling Up Fund bid on districts in the east of the county, because they are the areas most in need – and so are also the most likely to persuade the government to part with its cash.
All district and standalone local authorities nationwide have been placed in one of three priority categories which Whitehall says are based on “objective criteria” reflecting differing levels of need in relation to economic recovery and growth, improved transport connectivity and general regeneration
In the county council area, the eastern boroughs of Burnley, Hyndburn, Rossendale and Pendle are in category 1 – those places deemed to require the greatest support. However, so too are Preston and – after reclassification from the first round of applications last year – Chorley, which has moved up from category 2 in order to take into account the impact of the pandemic on the district.
Fylde, Lancaster and West Lancashire remain in the second category, while Ribble Valley, South Ribble and Wyre are in the third – and are considered to have the lowest level of need.
While it is possible for any area to scoop cash from the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund pot, bidding guidance states that it will be targeted towards places ”most in need of the type of investment the fund provides”.
The county council carried out a public consultation into its bid earlier this year on the basis that the eastern districts would be the focus of the proposal.
Cabinet member for economic development and growth Aidy Riggott told the meeting at which he and his colleagues approved the outline of the authority’s pitch to the government that East Lancashire contained the areas “most in need of intervention”.
County council leader Phillippa Williamson said that all district leaders had engaged in discussions about the authority’s bid – in spite of the fact that some would be “impacted more positively, from their perspective, than others”.
County Cllr Riggott said that the process had been “another great sign of the new collaborative supportive relationships which are emerging and flourishing right across Lancashire”.
County Hall last month set up its own £5m Levelling Up Investment Fund, which can accessed by district authorities to support them in making bids to the government’s levelling up pot – including by helping them to provide the necessary match funding.
Preston City Council agreed in April that it would be submitting a round 2 Levelling Up Fund bid centred around replacing the closed Old Tram Bridge connecting Avenham Park and Penwortham. It will also be bidding for a package of works for the park itself, as well as sport, community use and access enhancements for Waverley Park.
Additionally, the bid will set out plans to create cycling corridors, running from east to west and north to south across the city. The aim of the schemes is to establish good connections to bus and train services, employment sites and residential areas for those who travel on two wheels – and to tempt more people to do so.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that Chorley Council is also preparing a bid for the second round of the fund, with the matter set to be discussed in a private part of the authority’s cabinet meeting on Thursday.
As category 1 councils in the second round, both Preston and Chorley were given £125,000 by the government to support them in drawing up their proposals.
At a meeting of South Ribble’s full council back in April, the authority’s leader said that it was mulling over whether it would be worth making a bid, given its ranking in the lowest priority category.
Cllr Paul Foster said: “The problem we have is [that] it will cost this council money to submit a bid – and so we need to take a view on [whether], if we have got little chance…of being awarded levelling up money, then is it really in our taxpayers’ benefit to spend cash [and] not get anything back for it?”
However, he added that the authority had spoken to neighbouring Preston about the option of a joint bid for the Old Tram Bridge replacement.
This week, Wyre Council told the LDRS that it was not making a bid in the second round of the Levelling Up Fund.
West Lancashire Borough Council is set to submit a £14m bid to build a new, energy efficient leisure and wellbeing hub in Skelmersdale, to serve the whole district.
A spokesperson for the authority said: The hub will be designed to establish the physical, economic, social and environmental conditions that promote economic regeneration and address economic and health inequality. If successful, the council hopes to support behavioural change and community resilience by offering affordable, accessible, modern and needs-led leisure facilities, multi-agency drop-in services and multi-purpose community space."
Fylde and Lancaster councils were approached for comment about their intentions.
As unitary councils, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen are able to make their own separate bids, either for the £20m available to districts or the up to the £50m permitted for transport projects proposed by transport authorities.
In April, Blackpool Council’s cabinet agreed an approach to developing a proposal, at the core which would be the planned “multiversity” in the town. That scheme – for a new facility with the capacity for 3,600 students – has already received £9m as part of the government’s Town Deal and would be delivered in partnership with Blackpool and the Fylde College and Lancaster University.
Authority was delegated to the council’s chief executive to submit a bid for the second round of the Levelling Up Fund following consultation with council leader Lynn Williams.
Blackpool’s first round bid last year was unsuccessful. It had featured proposed projects including the redevelopment of the Abingdon Street post office into an Indigo brand hotel and a town centre access scheme.
The authority said that government feedback on the reasons for its failed first attempt offered only “limited explanation”, but cabinet papers in April stated that the post office project was considered a “stong candidate” for resubmission.
The LDRS has previously reported that Blackburn with Darwen is planning a £40m pitch to the Levelling Up Fund.