Published: 15:13, 22 July 2021
| Updated: 15:15, 22 July 2021
What connects plans for a living 'green wall' circling a city to new cycle lanes, a boutique hotel and a theatre becoming a co-workers space?
They are all elements of ambitious projects councils in Kent have on a wish list they hope could become a reality - provided the government agrees and delivers on its much-vaunted "levelling up" initiative.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson underlined his commitment to the idea in a recent keynote speech, saying the UK had "a more unbalanced economy than almost all our immediate biggest competitors in Europe and more unbalanced than pretty much every major developed country."
But as the deadline for the first round of applications passes, could the government’s £4.8bn “levelling up” fund leave some parts of Kent in the slow lane? And why are some councils putting on hold bids?
Our political editor Paul Francis answers the key questions:
Question: So what is the levelling up scheme about?
Answer: When Boris Johnson became prime minister he vowed to tackle the economic inequalities in the UK by channelling resources to the country’s poorest areas.
In a sign of the government's commitment, Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed in April councils would be able to bid for up to £20m for initiatives to help kickstart the local economy and regenerate town centres.
Money would be available to towns, cities and coastal areas to help eradicate significant regional disparities in economic performance.
Question: How much money will councils get and how will decisions on schemes be made?
Answer: Applications will be judged on the basis of how they will help overcome regional economic disparities, for example by creating jobs.
The fund is being managed jointly by the Treasury, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
However, some councils will have to wait as the government is giving priority to those areas with the highest social deprivation and those most in need of investment. Councils have been put in one of three categories according to their levels of social deprivation and the need for investment. Top priority are councils in Category 1.
In Kent, those considered as priority areas are Thanet; Dover; Folkestone; Canterbury; Swale and Gravesham. Lower down the pecking order are Tunbridge Wells, Sevenoaks and Tonbridge and Malling - all in category three; Maidstone and Medway are category two.
Question: What sort of projects will qualify for funding?
Answer: The government says schemes should be based on three main factors: transport, culture and town centre regeneration.
In addition, schemes to help regeneration of coastal towns have been encouraged. These should also be based on capital projects and the number of applications that can be made is also based on the number of MPs it has. So, Medway can apply for funding for three initiatives.
Projects must have “real impact” and be delivered before the end of the current parliament in 2024 and bids cannot be more than £20m.
Question: Will it work?
Answer: That is the £64,000 question. Not everyone is convinced.
A government watchdog led by the Bank of England’s chief economist has said “levelling up” plans for Britain are unlikely to succeed because they rely too heavily on infrastructure spending and one-off funding schemes controlled from Westminster.
On the other hand, at least the government is making money available that wasn't there before.
Question: Will all parts of Kent qualify for funding or lose out to other more deprived areas?
Answer: One criticism has been that this is a politically driven scheme designed to shore up the constituencies dubbed "red wall seats" that were unexpectedly won by the Conservatives in the north of England in 2019.
So, whether Kent loses out could largely depend on how many other bids are made from areas outside Kent and decisions made by the Chancellor about how viable projects are.
Politically, the government won't want to be seen as turning down applications for what is its flagship policy so councils can have some optimism about their prospects.
Question: Will Kent benefit...and why might it lose?
Answer: If councils succeed in their bids, the funding could help restore the fortunes of several areas which have struggled to overcome years - sometimes decades - of economic blight and an unwanted reputation as unemployment blackspots.
The downside is that this is a one-off scheme, providing a lump sum to councils to kickstart initiatives but no commitment to continue funding when schemes are up and running.
"It is pretty clear they have mostly picked areas where they are likely to benefit but I guess most governments would do the same given the choice..."
Question: Why are some authorities not applying for a share of the handout - even though they have priority status?
Answer: Some councils have declined to put bids forward, saying the government is rushing ahead and they need more time to work up schemes. They include Swale and Folkestone and Hythe councils, who both say they will put forward bids next year.
Question: What kind of bids have councils made?
Answer: Medway council has three linked proposals aimed at creating jobs through cultural regeneration. Its bid involves expanding the “creative workspace” at the Brook Theatre, leading to an additional 40 professional touring events each year, and 50 jobs.
It also plans to convert the historic Fitted Rigging House at Chatham Dockyard to provide 1,700 sqm of commercial workspace, creating 125 jobs.
A separate bid for between £10m and £14m to fund a scheme named ‘Greenway’ would create a 1.4km pedestrian and cycle connection between Gillingham waterfront and the town centre following the line of the disused railway.
The council also wants support to buy up empty properties in the high street - saying they will be available for commercial and community re-use “boosting vibrancy and increasing footfall.”
Thanet council has a three-pronged bid,involving the Port of Ramsgate becoming a “green port” which it says will provide a “hub for innovation and training, supporting renewable energy and zero carbon maritime logistics.” It also includes plans to develop The Royal Harbour as a visitor attraction, with a new boutique hotel, a high-end restaurant and brasserie.These would offer apprenticeships and training in hospitality. Investment in quayside fishing would allow the local fleet to store and sell their catch.
Council leader Rick Everitt said: "I believe this can be a pivotal moment for Thanet as a whole."
Canterbury city council has arguably among the more eye-catching packages, involving the creation of a pollinator park along the top of the city wall. It says the bid could transform Canterbury’s heritage assets.
Turning the city wall into a green haven of wildflowers akin to Manhattan’s High Line park is one strand of a bid that also includes transforming Canterbury’s crumbling castle into an amphitheatre, and renovating the Dane John Gardens.
Those behind the vision say it could see the city compete with the top tourist hotspots across the UK and Europe say it “could change beyond recognition this decade”.
Question: What do the politicians have to say?
Answer: Canterbury Labour MP Rosie Duffield says: "It is pretty clear they have mostly picked areas where they are likely to benefit but I guess most governments would do the same given the choice."
"The council is focusing very much on Canterbury and heritage which is of course important but actually we need to focus on Whitstable and the villages too, which will also need levelling up money."
South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay says: "The levelling-up fund for Thanet and Ramsgate is good because we do need on the port and harbour area a fresh start. Sometimes you need that corn feed money which the government can provide before private developers come in."