The government’s Levelling Up Fund prospectus published in March 2021 sets out how the Department for Transport (DfT), the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the Treasury will invest £4.8 billion in ‘high value infrastructure’. The foreword by Rishi Sunak states how this funding will remove the silos between departments allowing local authorities to focus on the highest priority local projects, with the mission to ‘unite and level up the country’.
The fund will run between 2021 and 2025 and will have different themes in each of the financial years. For 2021/22 the three themes are:
- Transport Investments.
- Regeneration and town centre investment.
- Cultural Investment.
The fund prospectus then goes on to set out the three themes in greater detail. The transport section (page 9 of the prospectus) then goes on to describe the benefits of investment in local transport networks and how they can make a real difference to local communities. It states that projects submitted under the transport investment scheme may include:
- Investments in new or existing cycling provision.
- Improved priority for local bus services.
- Enhanced public transport facilities, such as bus stops and stations.
- Accessibility improvements to local transport networks for disabled people.
- Enhancements and upgrades to local road networks (e.g. by-passes and junction improvements).
- Structural maintenance to local roads, including bridges.
- Multi-modal proposals which combine two or more interventions to enhance transport across modes.
This sounds like brilliant news for accessibility projects as at the current rate of progress the Department for Transport’s ‘Access for All’ fund won’t deliver full step-free access for the UK rail network until the 2070’s.
However, taking a look at the accompanying technical notes to the prospectus, the reference to accessibility improvements is omitted entirely, as shown below.
If this is just an error then it should be corrected immediately as there is a very tight deadline of 18th June 2021 for bid applications, and local councils may be guided by the notes not to apply for projects that improve accessibility in their area. However, if the technical notes are correct is clearly shows that the government are prioritising road building over transport accessibility improvements, which is bizarre considering their claims to be leading the way on fighting climate change and levelling up the UK.
I have considered that accessibility improvements may not have been included due to the availability of ‘Access for All’ funding from the DfT. However, if that is the case then why are road improvements included in the ‘Levelling Up’ scheme when there is a multi-billion pound fund already available for road building and maintenance.
Once again it seems that accessibility improvements are low on the priority list for this government which seems to regard accessibility as a favour not a right. Disabled people already face numerous barriers to prevent them from being able to travel independently. If we really want to ‘level up’ the UK a good place to start would be the UK rail network. We can and must do better than this.