The hon. Lady asks the right questions, and the point of the debate is precisely to flush out these kinds of question. That is precisely why we need to have this consultation, so that collectively we can have that debate and put in place an arrangement—a formula or criteria—that serves our country in the way that I hope we would all want it to be served.
I was making some observations about the challenges that specifically relate to poor connectivity, issues regarding skills, and productivity. Owing to devolution, and hopefully to the design of this fund, I am hugely positive about our ability at a regional and local level to address some of these challenges. Change is afoot, and there is growing recognition that the answers to these issues do not lie just in Whitehall or Westminster. The recent election of the North of Tyne Mayor—I know the Minister is quite enthusiastic about that recent election—means there are nine metro Mayors across England. They represent 20.7 million people, which is 37% of the population of England.
We are adding our voice to that of our friends and colleagues in devolved Administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in calling for greater freedoms and resources to help us do our jobs. This is a powerful voice and one that, to be fair, I believe the Government listen to. The Government have made place central to their industrial strategy, recognising that no one size fits all, that each and every part of the UK has a different set of opportunities, and that different approaches are required to develop them.
Over the coming months, many of us will be working with the Government to develop our local industrial strategies—joint agreements that set out how central Government and local government will work together to grow our economy. With the creation of powerful sub-national transport bodies such as Transport for the North, we increasingly have the capacity, capability and voice to effect real change. Taken together, these new models of governance, the growing recognition of the importance of place, and an acceptance that the status quo cannot be allowed to persist suggest a brighter future.
That brings me back to the shared prosperity fund, which has to be part of the solution. With some frustration, I say that despite many interventions in the House— through written questions and correspondence with the Department—and despite many promises that consultation would take place, we do not yet have clarity on how much funding will be available, what activities will be eligible for support or who will take the decisions about how the money is spent. We know that the new fund will be a central pillar of the Chancellor’s spending review, and that Departments will be working on the development of the fund. On that basis, we have not been sitting idly by, waiting to be asked. Indeed, I commend the work of the all-party parliamentary group on post-Brexit funding, and the analysis and contributions of colleagues in local and regional government who have been addressing these issues.
I have set out my four guiding principles on which I think the fund should be developed, which are as follows. First, the annual budget for the UK’s shared prosperity fund should be no less in real terms than both the EU and local growth funding streams it replaces. It must guarantee that regions will not be worse off because of Brexit, in the funding available for regional development beyond 2020. Moreover, that should be a baseline rather than a cap.
Secondly, there should be no competitive bidding element. Instead, an open and transparent process must be put in place that strikes a balance between targeting areas of need and rebalancing our economy, and supporting economies that have the greatest potential to grow.
Thirdly, the fund must be fully devolved to those areas that have in place robust, democratically accountable governance models, including devolved Administrations, combined authorities and mayoralties. It must be up to local areas how best to invest this money, be it on skills, helping the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, infrastructure investment, employment or support and education. Fourthly, the funding must be stretched over multiple years, beyond the vagaries of spending reviews and parliamentary cycles.
I want to take this opportunity to implore the Government to untie the hands of our local areas—to trust that we know our communities and can develop, appraise and deliver projects on time, on budget and in line with local need and opportunity. The year-by-year drip-feed of central Government funding for local economic growth has to end. The imposition of priorities and projects has to end. The competing against, rather than collaborating with, our partners for funding has to end.
The shared prosperity fund will be a litmus test for this Government on their commitment to devolution; it will be the proof of the pudding. The central question is whether we all have the courage and the conviction to let go of powers and resources that for too long have sat in Westminster and Whitehall. If we want to tackle the scourge of regional inequalities and create a country that works for all, let us be bold. Let us ensure that the shared prosperity fund does what it says on the tin: enable all our communities to share in this country’s economic growth, and prosper.