Durham County Council has ruled out pursuing a judicial review into the government’s Levelling Up Fund.

The local authority had agreed to explore the possibility of challenging the funding process after it spent £1.2m on five failed bids but has now ruled that any legal challenge would be too costly to pursue. 

Council officials wrote to the Government in December, asking for the £1.2m it spent on preparing and submitting bids for the Levelling Up Fund to be repaid after it missed out in Round Two and Three. 

The Department for Levelling Up said bids earmarked for funding were chosen from a pool of bids that were unsuccessful in the second round, avoiding the competitive bidding process seen previously. But the council claims it was left in the dark regarding feedback from the second round and before the latest announcement. 

Cabinet members considered the possibility of seeking a judicial review at a meeting last week, however the public was restricted from the discussion. Now, local authority officials have revealed how much it could cost and why it is not progressing the inquiry. 

Council Leader Amanda Hopgood told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that the estimated cost of pursuing a judicial review would be £100,000 to £150,000 at the very least. 

“The legal advice tells us that even if we were to succeed, it wouldn’t reverse the highly disappointing outcome of the government’s process, which we all agree was lacking in clarity and fairness,” the Liberal Democrat member said. 

Cllr Hopgood added: “Therefore, after weighing everything up, we don’t believe that pursuing a judicial review would be in the council’s or the public interest.”

The Northern Echo: Council Leader, Amanda HopgoodCouncil Leader, Amanda Hopgood (Image: Sarah Caldecott)The County Durham projects detailed plans to regenerate town centres, improve transport connectivity, and create new cultural attractions in Stanley; Horden; Newton Aycliffe; Willington, Crook and Tow Law; and Bowburn. 

A rule change, later admitted by the government after Round Two was awarded, meant that any successful areas in Round One would not benefit in the next round. This particularly affected the County Durham bids after the Bishop Auckland constituency received funding in the first round. 

The council was also told that County Durham had been “removed as a priority one status area” before Round Three was decided. Figures revealed by the LDRS showed it spent more than a million pounds on external consultants to help prepare the five bids. 

Cllr Hopgood added: “We have consistently lobbied government ministers for a reimbursement of our bidding costs, but unfortunately this has been refused by government. Our focus now is on making the most of the work we put into the bids and continuing to push for more investment in County Durham.

“We will use the content from these bids to apply to other funding streams with the aim of taking projects forward in the future.”

For County Durham Labour, one of the most galling aspects of the saga is that £1.2m worth of public money was spent without any rewards. 

The party’s deputy leader, cllr Rob Crute, said: “This coalition that happily spent over £1.2m on Levelling Up bids that seemingly never stood a chance, now plan to roll over and accept this outrage? Labour believes spending a tenth of that amount to recoup taxpayers’ money, while shining a spotlight on the shambolic administration of the Levelling Up budget, might just be the most effective investment this coalition has made in almost three chaotic years of running the county council.

“The bottom line here is that £1.2m has been taken from families and residents in County Durham, spent on Levelling Up bids that failed because government changed the rules at the 11th hour. That money must be returned and it is incumbent upon the council to do everything in its power to achieve that.”

Recommended reading: 

Grab our digital subscription for just £5 for 5 months and stay connected with local news

But members of the coalition hit back, saying Labour failed to challenge the council’s decision in person. 

Speaking on behalf of the Joint Administration, Cllr Elizabeth Scott responded: “Once again, Labour opposition members are happy to forget what they say, or simply ignore the facts. When the Levelling Up fund was first announced, after being asked during full council, the then leader councillor Simon Henig stated that Durham County Council would indeed be putting in a bid for each of the six constituencies.

“All Labour members had the opportunity to attend the cabinet meeting last week and raise this – again, they chose not to. Finally, Cllr Rob Crute, deputy leader of the Labour group, was interviewed along with me for TV later that day and made no mention of this demand. In fact, he accepted that our legal advice was justified and that any blame for failed bids lies clearly at the door of the Government who moved the goalposts.”