CBC Tories Challenged Over Lack of Consultation on 'Welcome Back Fund'

  • The government have made available to Central Bedfordshire £255,000 for the rejuvenation of town high streets. But a row has erupted over how the funds are to be distributed across Central Bedfordshire.

The scheme is known as the Welcome Back Fund(¹). The purpose of this money is to support businesses by increasing footfall on the High Street, post-covid.

Councillor Adam Zerny (Independent, Potton) claimed on his Facebook Page, 23 April, “I have spent the last week trying to get the Council to tell me how it was intending to divide up this funding. It has just revealed the numbers. Ordinarily, with major financial decisions, the Council at least makes an effort to demonstrate a semblance of transparency with a debate and a vote in public. Not the case on this occasion.

“The division of the cash has been made by Conservative cabinet members without any discussion or vote by the rest of the elected councillors.”

Adam's calculations:
Councillor Zerny writes, “Despite having 46% of the population the towns of Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Biggleswade are taking 60% of the WBF cash. This is at the expense of towns like Houghton Regis which despite significant areas of deprivation is down to receive 40% less than it could have expected based on population. Other big losers include the likes of Stotfold (35% less than due), Arlesey (70% less than due), Barton-le-Clay (70% less than due) and Cranfield (70% less than due).

“It's worth noting that 15 of the 17 councillors who represent Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Biggleswade are Conservative while not one of those who were elected to represent Houghton Regis represent the party in blue. Of the two councillors representing the three larger towns who are Independents, neither were consulted about how the money would be divided.”

Councillor Zerny is supported in this instance by the Labour Party on their website, where they write, “Stop this favouritism. Local government should not be based on party politics! Our challenge to the Conservative Bedfordshire Council is this: publish your reasons for granting more money to Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable, on the basis of population size, compared to Houghton Regis. Let’s have some transparency on this. Could this be yet another case of the Tories looking after their own?”

In response to these comments, Central Bedfordshire Council issued a statement on 27 April, “We have moved quickly to support the vibrancy of our town centres as retailers and other businesses reopen. As part of our approach, we have chosen to work with local Town Council’s by offering funding from the Government’s Welcome Back Fund. The purpose of this fund is to support delivery of innovative activities that will help to encourage footfall to return in as safe a manner as possible. The level of funding allocated to different town centres is based on a number of factors. This includes the level of precept charged by the Town Council for that area, and also the Local Plan designation for the town centre in question. This helps to ensure that resources are allocated fairly and at a level appropriate to the size of the town centre and the challenges faced.”

Councillor Zerny then responded, saying, “Any funding to be allocated should have been discussed at a public meeting. For a local authority to allocate £250,000 of funding without any discussion by elected councillors is a real concern.”

Video of the Houghton Regis Town Partnership on the evening of 27 April where the allocation was discussed
Houghton Regis CBC Liberal Democrat Councillor, Susan Goodchild commented, “I first became aware of [The Welcome Back Fund] in the Member's Information Bulletin, when it stated that 'members had agreed...........,'.  I personally felt that this was strange given that it was the first I had heard of it. I immediately contacted an Executive Member to query this.  I think many members would have been aware of the government's announcement and was hoping that CBC would benefit. 

“At the Town Partnership [meeting held in Houghton Regis on 27 April] several members raised the point in relation to how the funding was distributed.  I specially asked the question that there must be more that sits behind the allocated [funding]. I am sure councillors will want to consider how the funding could be spent and more importantly how it will align with the Town Council's Vision.”

At an unconnected meeting held today councillors at CBC made it clear that if there were businesses out there that needed funding, then all they had to do was apply. This link to the CBC website may help with that.

(¹) The Welcome Back Fund is providing councils across England a share of £56 million from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to support the safe return to high streets and help build back better from the pandemic. This funding builds on the £50 million Reopening High Street Safely Fund (RHSSF) allocated to councils in 2020 and forms part of the wider support government is providing to communities and businesses. gov.uk..publications ..