Boris Johnson has announced another election package costing hundreds of millions of pounds for neglected towns, some of which will be spent in marginal constituencies.
Concentrating on rundown high streets, the closures of pubs and post offices and the restoration of rail links, the prime minister has claimed that the measures will build upon the £3.6bn towns fund first announced in July.
Towns that have been singled out in the new measures include Cleveleys, near Blackpool, where the Conservatives are defending a majority of 2,023, and Willenhall in Walsall North, where they hope to improve on a 2,601 majority.
Labour said last night the Conservatives were responsible for the destruction of the high streets they are now claiming they will help. Andrew Gwynne, the shadow communities secretary, said: “The Tories are destroying our high streets and towns. A decade of vicious cuts to the services that people in our communities rely on has taken 60p in every £1 from council budgets.”
Johnson said a future Conservative government would extend the retail discount on business rates to 50% next year. For businesses with a rateable value of less than £51,000, this will mean an increase on the current retail discount of 33% in 2020-21. This would amount to “an effective £280m tax cut” for small businesses, the party claimed.
A new £1,000 business rates relief for pubs would also be introduced under a Johnson majority government – an £18m tax cut for next year, it is claimed.
The Conservatives said they would also introduce a £150m fund that will help groups trying to take over and run pubs and post offices threatened with closure.
Following on from previous pledges to reverse rail cuts recommended by Dr Richard Beeching in the 1960s, Johnson has also pledged to set up a £500m Beeching Reversal fund.
Towns such as Ashington, Seaton Delaval and Blyth, with a combined population of 100,000, will receive cash following a request from Northumberland council for £99m to reinstate stations, the Tories claimed.
Willenhall and Darlaston in the West Midlands will receive £18m to reopen stations – a further £10m has already been provided by the government, the party said.
Investment will also be provided to connect Skelmersdale to Liverpool and Manchester. A disused railway line will be funded to improve transport connections for Thornton-Cleveleys and Fleetwood.
In a statement last night, Johnson said: “For too long, too many towns and villages across Britain have been overlooked and left behind. When the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, many communities felt their voices had been heard for the first time in decades and that their lives would improve.
“We will invest in these communities and help people put the heart back into the places they call home.”
One organisation representing retailers said Johnson’s plans did not go far enough to revive the UK’s troubled shopping districts.
Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium, said the majority of the UK’s 3 million retail workers were employed in businesses that would not benefit from today’s announcement.
“It is essential that the next government scraps ‘downwards transition’, which costs retailers £1.3bn, freezes next year’s rates increase, and introduces an improvement relief to encourage investment in our high streets.
“To ensure the long-term vitality of our town and city centres, the next government should follow the recommendations of the treasury select committee and commit to wholesale reform of our broken business rates system,” he said.
The Conservatives have been accused of using public money to boost their election prospects after it emerged that funding from the towns fund was going to wealthier Tory marginals. An analysis by the Times found this week that a third of the 100 towns due to receive some of the £3.6bn pot were not among the 300 most deprived towns.
These included Loughborough, which was won by Nicky Morgan, the culture secretary, at the last election, with a majority of around 4,000. Kirby was not on the list.