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The potential and the problems with Levelling Up in Bolton

Levelling Up was a key part of the Conservative manifesto in 2019 - but spending increasingly limited funds to even compete for investment can be problematic

February 15 2024, 11.00am

Towards one end of Farnworth’s lengthy Market Street the Royal Balti House’s menu has a new variant on the curry house staple. The Bolti, with added Lancashire Sauce, pays homage to Bolton, the biggest town in the borough. But Farnworth is very much its own place. 

Its boarded-up shops are a sadly familiar sight across the country. But Farnworth is planning a bold transformation, using levelling-up funding as its base.

A samosa’s throw from the Royal Balti House, Farnworth Green is the name of the ambitious new development planned for the market precinct site – 85 new apartments, 12 houses and 20,000 sq ft of new retail, commercial and communal space. It’s close to the train station and next door to the refurbished bus station. 

Farnworth Green was enabled by a £13.3 million award from the Future High Streets Fund in Dec 2020, hailed by then Bolton Council leader David Greenhalgh as a “game changer”.  But like all government funding for capital projects, it’s not easy to get hold of and it’s not always easy to spend.

The government’s ambition of “levelling up” the country was a part of its 2019 manifesto. Critics say it lacks a firm definition but its sense is easy to grasp – addressing socio-economic imbalances between social groups and regions. By 2021, the slogan had acquired a couple of capital letters to become the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund. Along with the Towns Fund and the Future High Streets Fund, it constitutes the bulk of central government regeneration money. Bolton’s competed for all of them – with varying degrees of success.

“I always encouraged officers – and it got me into political trouble at times – that we needed to bid for everything,” Martyn Cox, who was Conservative executive member for regeneration at Bolton Council before becoming leader when Greenhalgh died in 2021, told The Bolton Lead. He is now leader of the opposition. “If you don’t win a bid people say you are useless, but if you know anything about bidding, you know you’re never going to win them all. But you won’t win a single one if you’re not in with a shout. It’s a bit like being criticised for buying raffle tickets if you don’t win the prize.”


The £13.3 million won for Farnworth has persuaded Manchester-based developer Capital & Centric to come on board for the project, even though it would barely pump-prime a toilet in a London scheme. Indeed, Bolton had bid for £19 million and was forced to shuffle its hand to meet the shortfall, finding investment from Transport for Greater Manchester and Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s brownfield fund.

Juggling funding sources like this is an established hallmark of competitive bidding. A new one is rejigging projects because of rising prices. Last March, in the face of increasing materials costs and inflation, the council considered a report showing the bill for public realm works in Farnworth had risen to £5.4 million from £3.73 million. 

To bring the bill back down, it had to agree on measures including cheaper kerbside materials, the removal of rain gardens from the plan, and a 50 per cent cut in the provision of new trees. And it still needed to seek further emergency funding. Later though, United Utilities Green Recovery Fund promised to fund the trees that had been cut out.

Cox acknowledges the loss of purchasing power resulting from soaring inflation and insists that’s why Rishi Sunak is right to want to squeeze it out of the system. Nevertheless, Farnworth Green is on track for completion this year, according to the developer. It’s the only game in a depleted town.

“It’s a big turnaround for Farnworth to carry out,” Cox told The Bolton Lead. “It wasn’t going to happen any other way. It’s getting the mix of private and public investment right.”

Bolton scored another notable success in round one of the Levelling Up Fund, when in 2021 it was awarded £20 million for Bolton Institute of Medical Sciences. With another £20 million from Bolton University, the new college, on the site of the Royal Bolton Hospital, will train 3,000 learners annually for clinical roles including nursing, midwifery, physiotherapy and nutrition. 

It took a modest amount of juggling – the pandemic meant a promised £10 million from GMCA Skills Capital Programme was unavailable because it required an earlier start date – but again, it’s on track to take in the first students in September this year. They will include young people and – importantly for Bolton, says Farnworth councillor Sue Haworth – people of adult age wanting to upskill from jobs in pubs and shops in order to get better pay.

The college claims to be bringing £150 million in economic development benefits, some of which have already begun to flow, according to its construction company Willmott Dixon, through the use of local recruitment social enterprises and local employees.


Bolton Town Hall


“It’s massively significant for the borough as a whole,” says Haworth. “I’ve been elected 10 years and this is the best thing I’ve seen.”

She’s far less impressed with the other round one bid Bolton put in, or tried to put in, to the Levelling Up fund. A further £16 million was sought to redevelop the Crompton Place shopping centre in Bolton town centre but the application was too big to send in one email and couldn’t be broken down before the 18 June 2021 deadline expired. Council officials said they weren’t told until October why their bid had failed.

Cox says the email debacle “was used politically” and the real reason for the rejection was the complexity of the bid, with problems of ownership of the land. 

“Before you can knock it down you have to own it all,” he says. “Not only do you have to own it all you have to have all the leases cleared and there were multiple leases, and, of top of that, even if you bought the whole building and cleared all the leases, Marks & Spencer still had the right to drive over the top of the building to access its warehouse for its store. 

“Even if we got the money today we couldn’t say for sure we could start and so the government decided of the two bids the Institute of Medical Sciences was the stronger, which didn’t really surprise us.”

It continues to surprise Haworth though. Of the missed deadline, she asks why heads didn’t roll. 

“Who’s got the responsibility and accountability for the business of a really notable application going into government for big finance? You’ve definitely got a role for a cabinet member there.

“The knowledge base in public sector administration definitely doesn’t have ‘send your bid in on day zero’. It’s core business stuff, this. You don’t leave your bid to go in on the last day.”

A council spokesperson told The Bolton Lead that Crompton Place remains central to its aims for the town centre and “work to bring forward viable development options continues”.

Round two of Levelling Up brought disappointment too, with the rejection of two bids together worth £40 million – one for Bolton town centre improvements and another for traffic work on De Havilland Way, near junction 6 of the M61. Many observers believed that, despite the strength of round two bids, losers from round one would be favoured over them if their bids were credible. But if that seems fair and pragmatic, council officials said they weren’t told of this approach and, although some funding is available for the bid process itself, the council, its capacity being sucked, still lost time and money.

It also begs the question of whether funding is really going to places in need. It was a question only heightened when analysis showed some wealthier areas were receiving more spending than deprived areas and Sunak was caught on camera boasting to wealthy Tunbridge Wells residents that he’d diverted funding towards them. 

Bolton has had other funding successes. Round three of the Levelling Up Fund is now paying for the town centre improvements that round two would not, including a “reimagined” Market Place shopping centre, a new hotel for the beautiful Le Mans Crescent and conversion of the former Debenhams unit for non-retail purposes.

The Future High Streets Fund has already brought a new-look leisure centre for Farnworth. From the Towns Fund comes the on-track opening this year of a new food hall for Bolton Market, the new Elizabeth Park nearby, renovation of the impressive Central Library and the Wellspring business start-up hub.


The white Bolton arch in Newport Street, leading from Bolton railway station and interchange to town hall, town centre 


But problems remain with this form of funding. For Haworth, “if you can put a slick bid together for them then you’re more likely to get the finance”. And she and Cox agree across party lines that government is far too centralised in this country, that departments try to micro-manage spending and when the Treasury gets involved it gets even worse. Both want to be able to make important decisions closer to the ground.

Bolton has just become one of 10 local authorities admitted to the government’s Simplification Pathfinder Pilot, which brings the Levelling Up Fund, the Future High Streets Fund and the Towns Fund together. Participating councils will now be able to consider them as one pot, move money around, and adhere to a single set of regulations. 

Current council leader Nick Peel said it’s a “clear vote of confidence in Bolton’s ability to successfully deliver major regeneration projects”. Cox, an ardent devolutionist, welcomes “baby steps”. And of course it all takes place against the context of massive local government cuts since 2010 that overshadow whatever can be curried up in the three-into-one pot.

“The funding allocated to towns like Bolton will have a positive impact – with investment in Farnworth town centre, for example – but alone it is not going to address Bolton’s longstanding inequalities,” says local government researcher Jack Shaw. “More radical and long-term action is required.

“Two years of high inflation has eaten into government investment and across England local authorities have no other option but to reduce the size of their plans as a result – or find funding from elsewhere. With significant pressure on local authorities, few are able to find additional funding.

“This has been made worse by the fact that local authorities have had to spend much-needed resources to compete for government investment – and Bolton is not alone in losing resources by unsuccessfully bidding for investment.”

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