The coastal town left waiting years for its £23m levelling up cash

With the new Labour government ditching its predecessor's 'levelling up' policy, Yahoo News looks at why the scheme hasn't worked for so many

Tilbury Riverside Station and floating landing stage, now the London International Cruise Terminal, Essex, 2018. Completed in 1924 the SS Empire Windrush docked here in 1948, since 1995 it has been open for leisure cruise use. Artist Historic England. (Photo by Historic England Archive/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
Tilbury, in Essex, was promised £22.8m in funding in 2021 but is yet to receive it. (Getty)

When housing and communities secretary Angela Rayner announced today that her department was ditching the previous government's "levelling up" agenda, she said the time for “gimmicks and slogans" was over.

The previous Conservative administration touted its levelling up scheme as a way to "spread opportunity more equally across the UK" by awarding hundreds of millions of pounds in funding for community and regeneration projects.

It has received plenty of criticism, however, with parliament's expenditure watchdog saying that, as of September, only £1.24bn of the £10.47bn the government had promised had been spent by local authorities.

The scheme was described as a "failure" by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which said that disparities in living standards in different parts of the country "have either remained unchanged or widened".

Even in regions generally regarded as being better off than others, there's a sense that some towns are being left behind. That includes Tilbury in Essex.

Tilbury is a port town on the southern tip of the county on the River Thames. It has the second highest deprivation rate in Thurrock and an overall crime rate in 2023 of 166 crimes per 1,000 people – nearly double the average across Essex of 84 per 1,000 and of 85 across the UK.

According to property developers LSH, which assisted the Tilbury Town Deal Board to prepare a Town Investment Plan in 2021, Tilbury has "high unemployment and poor health, and is one of the poorest areas in England."

It said the local freeport was a "hugely important economic asset that dominates the town and surrounding area", adding: "It was recognised that there was a desperate need to create stronger economic, physical and social connections between the port, the town centre and Tilbury’s community, and improve employment and education opportunities."

And yet Tilbury is still waiting for the £22.8m of regeneration cash it was promised in 2021.

The funding was supposed to pay for a new jetty to extend river bus services, pay for a state of the art youth centre and a new hub reconnecting the town station gateway with the town centre.

However, a recent Freedom of Information Act request shows no levelling up funds have been received yet by Thurrock borough council, which needed a government bailout after being effectively declared bankrupt in 2022.

Speaking to Yahoo News, Tilbury councillor John Allen said: “We’ve been asking questions all the way down the line as to where the money is sitting. Are we in receipt of the money?”

"These projects were approved by the Town Fund board, but Joe Public wasn’t allowed really to attend. No other councillors were allowed to put forward any other good ideas, it was all done behind closed door by the former administration and port owners.

“The Tilbury Town Fund was a closed shop – it consisted of the former administration councillors who were all Conservative.

“I even asked in members questions that all elected Tilbury councillors should be on the board, but we weren’t allowed. All the questions that we’ve been asking have never really received full answers – it’s a Pandora’s Box, you could say."

Yahoo News has asked Thurrock Council to comment on claims of a lack of transparency.

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Tilbury hit the headlines earlier this year, with locals describing it as a "town of the damned" plagued by anti-social behaviour, drug taking, unemployment and boarded up shops and pubs in an article for the Daily Mail.

“Tilbury needs love but it never seems to receive it. The papers have portrayed it to be a really deprived area… I don’t think it’s fair at all," Allen said. “It’s still a working class area. The majority of people there are still really good people. When Tilbury comes together as a community they really come together.”

That said, he accepts that anti-social behaviour is a huge problem, adding that many residents don't bother reporting it because they don't think police officers are going to show up.

“Housing as well is a big concern. Currently we have got about 8,500 people on the two waiting lists, but we have a depleted housing stock because of the right to buy."

He said housing stock for the town is less than 10,000, compared to around 25,000 in the 60s and 70s.

Tilbury clearly needs, as Allen puts it, a "little bit of love", but says it hasn't had much help from Westminster.

Some accelerated town funds have been made available for smaller projects, including improvements to parks and £360,000 for the 2021 demolition of the old fire station to make way for a new medical centre – which is still yet to be built.

“Then they put up hoarding around it, which cost £36,000 I believe. Two thirds of that is now on the floor," said Allen.

Asked if he had much hope now a new government is in charge, he said: “I’m very sceptical of a Labour government lead by Keir Starmer. I described him and Rishi Sunak as two cheeks of the same backside."

It is not clear what the new government is going to do with the funding currently allocated under levelling up, although more may become clear in the coming days and weeks.

Despite local authorities being allocated £10.47bn under the levelling up scheme, councils have seen a 27% real-terms cut in spending power since 2010 due to reduced government spending, the Local Government Association said.

On top of this, towns no longer have access to European Union, with analysis from the Institute for Public Policy Research suggesting the UK Shared Prosperity fund which replaced it amounted to a 43% drop in funding compared to before Brexit.

Adding further to local authorities' woes is inflation, which has forced many councils to freeze their levelling up development projects as costs have exceeded the grants they received.

A study published earlier this year by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and University of Birmingham City-REDI, tries to identify the keys factors to success among councils bidding for grants and implementing them on the ground.

It points to Dudley Council as being "hindered by limited capacity to both respond quickly to funding rounds and engage in comprehensive evaluation and monitoring activities" – an issue faced by local authorities across the country.

The outdoor market in Dudley, West Midlands, UK
Like many parts of the UK, a lack of council capacity makes it harder for Dudley to effectively bid for government funding. (Alamy)

The study also suggests that some national funding guidelines aren't tailored enough to the needs of specific areas.

For example, affordable housing programme subsidies, tend to be capped at £15,000 per unit, but in Dudley and other parts of the Black Country, subsidies of up to £80,000 per unit may be required as land contamination and the presence of mineshafts due to the area's manufacturing history drive up development costs.

While the four local authorities in South Yorkshire have had a history of fighting among themselves for "crumbs off the table", the leadership of metro mayor Oliver Coppard has seen greater cooperation and "a more straightforward, less ideological, let’s try and get stuff done approach," interviewees told the researchers.

However, the study says "insufficient, short-term and fragmented funding threatens to limit South Yorkshire’s ambitions and risks distorting priorities," – as is the case for many other local authorities.

Researchers added that the scale of funding made available to regions in England is "below local ambition" compared to other parts of the world.

A good example of this is in Germany, which tried to bridge the inequality gap between east and west after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While this is still very much an issue, the German government's policies designed to address it totalled nearly €2tn (£1.69tn) between 1990 and 2014.