Shropshire Star

£85 million ‘Levelling Up’ bids from Shropshire Council failed due to incomplete evidence

Three failed ‘Levelling Up’ bids which could have brought £85 million into Shropshire lacked important details and did not evidence why the funds were needed, it can be revealed.

Shropshire Council HQ at Shirehall, Shrewsbury

Feedback letters to Shropshire Council from Government ministers also highlighted financial discrepancies and varying levels of detail between different elements of the submissions.

The letters, released following a freedom of information request, were sent to the council earlier this year after it was announced that only one of its four bids into round two of the Levelling Up Fund – for £18.7m towards the regeneration of the Riverside area of Shrewsbury – had been successful.

The council says the feedback will help it strengthen the three rejected bids in the event a third round of funding is announced.

Two of the bids, for infrastructure schemes in Craven Arms and Oswestry, had first been submitted under round one of the fund, while the third – for a county-wide bus service overhaul dubbed ‘Shropshire Connect’ – followed a separate unsuccessful bid for £98m of ‘Bus Back Better’ funding last year.

In its Levelling Up rejection letter to the council, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said the plans for Shropshire Connect “could have been clearer and more coherent”, adding that “further evidence could have been provided”.

The ‘Rural Connect’ bid

The council intended to spend the funds on a new ‘Shrewsbury Connect’ service linking the current park and ride routes with extra destinations across the town, and a separate project covering the wider county called ‘Rural Connect’, which would have seen current low-frequency buses replaced with a new demand-responsive service using minibuses.

The feedback letter said: “Although the main focus of this bid is to make public transport a realistic first choice of travel it was not made clear if the bid would benefit the community, with the assessors noting that passenger numbers were reduced and that the current bus service provision was not financially sustainable.”

Ministers said the council should have included current bus supply and demand figures, along with evidence as to why the current provision was not good enough, and “more specific” detail such as proposed routes, frequency and operating hours.

The letter said the timescale for Shrewsbury Connect looked “feasible”, but that the ‘Rural Connect’ project was “very ambitious” and “it was unclear how this deadline would be met”.

It also noted that no contingency budget appeared to have been factored in for Rural Connect despite claims that it had been. The letter said this was “unclear”.

The Craven Arms bid

This would have seen a new roundabout constructed on the A49, a new road and a road bridge over the railway line, to help bring forward the development of allocated employment and housing sites.

The DLUHC said the project had “strong local support” as it would bring community benefits and cut journey times, but said the council needed to demonstrate where funding for the development sites would come from in order for the benefits of the infrastructure scheme to be realised.

The letter said: “The bid could be improved by providing clearer evidence for the transport problems identified, particularly for congestion and delays during time periods at key locations in the study area.

“The bid does not contain clear evidence that transport is constraining development.”

The letter said greater clarity was also needed on provision for bus users and cyclists, as well as wider traffic modelling.

The Oswestry bid

This was split into two projects – one to improve public spaces in the town centre and one for enabling infrastructure work at Oswestry Innovation Park.

The DLUHC was more complimentary of the Oswestry submission than those for Shropshire Connect and the Craven Arms scheme, saying the council had demonstrated “good levels of engagement”.

The letter said: “This was a detailed bid that proposed an interesting set of projects. The evidence presented to demonstrate the scale of issues was reliable and set out the key problems facing the place very clearly.”

But it went on to say the two projects had differing levels of detail, financial discrepancies and “double-counting” of some of the claimed benefits, which was a cause for “concern”.

It said: “Within the financial section of the application, the level of detail was not consistent for both projects.

“Specific descriptions were given for project two, whilst project one only had street names rather than specific descriptions of works needed.

“There was some discrepancy between the contingency mentioned in the application and how this was shown in the costings workbook. This could be more explicit and made clearer.”

The letter added that the bid would have been strengthened by “more clearly linking how the outputs of the intervention address the challenges facing the area”.

Council response

Councillor Mark Jones, cabinet member for growth and regeneration, said it was “always disappointing” when grant bids are knocked back, but pointed out that the fund was “extremely competitive”.

He said: “The feedback we received regarding the unsuccessful bids has been helpful to review what could have strengthened each funding application.

“In terms of Craven Arms, we will continue to monitor the transport infrastructure challenges this particular area faces, and build this into the overall evidence base to support any future funding bids.

“Feedback relating to the two Oswestry projects suggests that although outputs of both were clearly identified, further evidence to highlight the direct connection between both projects would have added value.

“Work is continuing to support proposed development at Mile End and Oswestry Innovation Park, and we’re exploring other funding sources with our partners, such as UK Shared Prosperity Fund for town streetscape improvements."

He added: “Our public transport team have been working closely with government representatives to present some of the connectivity issues rural counties like Shropshire faces, and this dialogue will help shape possible future bids.

“Like many other authorities, we regularly review previous bids for good practice, and anticipate a third round of levelling up funding to be announced by central government.

“As this is not yet confirmed, we will have to wait and see how cross-county opportunities in Shropshire align not only with future funding criteria, but also the healthy economy priority of our Shropshire Plan.”