Tony Armstrong: Say no to 'pork-barrel Brexit'

We must not miss this chance for genuine long-term change

Tony Armstrong
Tony Armstrong

"We are examining opportunities to provide further financial support to communities who feel left behind." Those words, from the Prime Minister’s letter to Jeremy Corbyn, confirm what a series of anonymous briefings to the papers have suggested in recent weeks: the government is considering exchanging financial support to communities for MPs’ votes on its Brexit deal.

At one level, this suggestion of more resources to struggling communities is welcome. There is no doubt that some places in the UK are desperately in need of greater support. But in the wider context this "pork-barrel Brexit" is deeply ominous.

Immediately after the referendum in 2016, I wrote a blog saying that we needed to set a new course as we left the EU, dispersing power and funding to communities and prioritising a more inclusive economy with support for areas that had not seen the benefit of economic growth over several decades.

But the existing situation – with short-term political calculation, shady conversations and back-room deals in Westminster determining the fate of communities – will only make our country’s problems worse, not better.

So let’s have these conversations out in the open. The first step towards doing that is to be honest about the context. We need to talk about our current funding arrangement with the European Union and the government’s plans to replace it.

Of course, it takes some bravery to raise the subject of the EU-UK funding relationship. The country has arguably been in trauma ever since a certain red bus toured the country. But all good psychiatrists will tell you that trauma has to be confronted. So here goes.

Assuming Brexit takes place with a deal or without, the government has promised to replace the UK’s share of the "structural" funds (regeneration and social funding) that we currently receive from the EU with a "Shared Prosperity Fund".

We know almost nothing about this fund. We don’t know how big it is, what it will be spent on or who will decide how it is spent. The government has promised that the fund will seek to address inequalities between communities, and has underwritten existing financial commitments made by the EU. But that’s about it. A long-promised consultation on the fund is nowhere to be seen. And if No 10 is now going around making secret promises to backbench Labour MPs and others, then it has already skewed the debate.

If there’s one thing we can say for sure in the wake of the Brexit referendum, it’s that most people have a profound distrust of Westminster. We know how true this is from our work with community organisations all over the country. Politicians will need to tread very carefully if they are going to start rebuilding that trust.

If we believe the media stories of cash-for-votes stitch-ups being floated by the government, then we need to be aware that any such moves are going to go down very badly in communities themselves. Even those places favoured by any pork-barrel funds are unlikely to have much faith that the financial support will be for the long term.

Many of the communities we work with have seen short-term funding wash in and out of their local areas with scant benefit for local people. They can smell a rat from a long distance. What we need is a rebalancing of our economic priorities, long-term sustainable investment in communities and sensible strategies to disperse power in this country so that people feel they have more say over what happens in their local areas.

Leaving the EU will be a one-time activity. We will have one small window of opportunity to start rebuilding trust and bringing the country together. If we are going to do that, we need to kill off old centralising habits. We cannot administer grace and favour from Whitehall and Westminster when those institutions are so deeply distrusted already.

The Shared Prosperity Fund is a chance to start trusting in people and communities again. We desperately need to address inequalities between different places in this country, but the only way to do that sustainably is to empower people in "left behind" areas to rebuild their communities themselves.

Handouts based on short-term tactical emergency simply won’t wash. Instead, we need a commitment from government to replace EU funds with a fair and empowering system. It should target resources at the places that genuinely need it most, and it should give communities themselves real control over how the money is spent.

Anything else will simply increase division and distrust, so let’s not miss this chance for genuine, lasting change.

Tony Armstrong is the chief executive of Locality

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