A government decision to ignore bids for levelling up projects in County Durham and Darlington has sparked calls for a better funding process, as councils warn they cannot afford to waste money. 

Both local authorities failed to receive funding in round three of the Levelling Up Fund, announced on Monday, despite consecutive bids. 

The Local Democracy Reporting Service has found that some local authorities received more feedback than others to allow them to update or change their bids ahead of the third round of funding. 

In County Durham, the five projects detailed plans to regenerate town centres, improve transport connectivity, and create new cultural attractions. Durham County Council spent £1.3 million on external consultants to prepare the bids ahead of the second funding round 

But a rule change, revealed by the government after the bids had been submitted, meant that if a council had been successful in the first round, further bids could not be considered in the second round - a decision which North Durham Labour MP Kevan Jones labelled “scandalous”. 

Councils were then told that failed second round bids could be considered in the third round. But on Monday the Government surprisingly announced the allocation of funding in the final round, meaning some councils had no opportunity to adjust or reconfirm bids. 

Durham council leader Amanda Hopgood criticised a “lack of clarity in the process” and said the authority was not asked to submit any further information to support its case in round three, and was not made aware of the announcement. 

The Northern Echo: A funding bid to revitalise Newton Aycliffe town centre failed againA funding bid to revitalise Newton Aycliffe town centre failed again (Image: Sarah Caldecott)

Just £20 million has been awarded to County Durham out of the three rounds - for transport schemes in Bishop Auckland. 

“Durham County Council spent over a million pounds and received nothing to show for it, through no fault of their own,” said MP Kevan Jones. 

For Darlington Borough Council (DBC) however, the Local Democracy Reporting Service can reveal that its bid was changed after initial feedback and contact from the Levelling Up department. 

The town’s bid was readjusted to ask for extra funding for the A68 roundabouts scheme at Cockerton and Victoria Road/ Skerne underpass upgrades. 

The Northern Echo: Darlington Borough Council has confirmed the scheme to upgrade a busy section of the A68 in Cockerton is on track despite doubts Darlington Borough Council has confirmed the scheme to upgrade a busy section of the A68 in Cockerton is on track despite doubts (Image: Darlington Borough Council)

Conservative MP Peter Gibson said he contacted government officials for feedback following the round two failure. The bid was then readjusted after the Labour-led leadership took over power in May. 

Peter Gibson said: “Over recent months I have engaged with both ministers and DBC officers in respect of round three, having met with ministers and conveyed DBC correspondence and revision to bids in recent weeks, in particular highlighting the key elements that Darlington wanted to see.”

Yet Monday’s announcement was another blow for the council’s hopes and led to the Darlington MP standing up in the House of Commons and asking for advice on how to win the cash

In response, Jacob Young MP, levelling up minister, failed to directly answer the question and praised the investment already delivered in the town. 

But the response incensed Labour’s Stephen Harker, leader of the council, as he criticised the lack of communication. 

Cllr Harker said: “If the bid wasn’t good enough then tell us why. Peter’s genuinely trying to help people in the local authority and he gets slapped in the face with a ridiculous answer; I’m lost for words.”

In preparation for round two, Darlington Council spent over £100,000 on external consultants to help with its bid. 

“We spent many hours and money preparing these bids and we’ve been left with nothing and no understanding as to why we were unsuccessful,” cllr Harker added. “Local authorities are really hard up for cash and spending money on bids that end up being unsuccessful is money that we can’t afford to waste.”

Instead of a similar funding process, cllr Harker said the money needs to be shared out “so everywhere benefits and not just a handful of authorities”.

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Peter Gibson added: “Despite political differences I remain committed to working with DBC councillors and officers for the good of the town.”

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said: “Levelling up means delivering local people’s priorities and bringing transformational change in communities that have, for too long, been overlooked and undervalued.

“This funding sits alongside our wider initiatives to spread growth, through devolving more money and power out of Westminster to towns and cities, putting in place bespoke interventions to places that need it most, and our long-term plan for towns.”