The UK government’s flagship £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund has suffered an embarrassing delay with the web portal for applications remaining inaccessible more than a month after it was scheduled to go live.
Local authorities bidding for the second round of the fund, which is the centrepiece of delivering on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to reduce regional economic inequalities, were supposed to have been able to lodge their applications from May 31 ahead of a deadline for submissions of noon on July 6.
However, with less than a week to go until the deadline expires, applicants are still greeted with a message on the levelling up department’s website that says: “Unfortunately, it has not been possible to launch the online portal on the planned date.”
The delay has forced levelling up secretary Michael Gove to extend the deadline to avoid a crash when the portal does go live, with bidders promised two weeks to post their submissions.
One local government official in the north of England said the department was being repeatedly chased on the issue. “We’re busy working up bids but having no portal is really not helping,” they said.
“The fear is that given next Wednesday is the deadline, as soon as the portal goes live everyone will log on and the system will crash. There’s also a concern around word limits and attachment sizes.”
Alexander Rose, of the law firm DWF who is advising several bids on subsidy policy, said there was huge demand for the second round of the fund, following the disbursement of £1.7bn in round one, which was adding pressure to the system.
“The government has not made clear if there will be a third round, so everyone is bidding in case they miss out,” he said, adding it was very difficult to prepare clients’ bids without knowing basic elements, such as how long or detailed answers could be.
“It really matters because you can’t know how to fill out the questions. These aren’t small forms.”
The online portal replaces an email-based system used for the first round of bids that caused some councils problems in 2021. Bolton council missed the deadline for a £16mn grant because “file size limitations” on the government’s server bounced their emailed application, a local official said last year.
Dr Nicola Headlam, a former senior civil servant responsible for regional development, said the system was causing longstanding frustration in local government. “The money belongs to local government and it is outrageous that this assault course to unlock it exists,” she added.
The concerns follow a report by the House of Commons public accounts committee earlier this month, which highlighted delays to the first round of the fund’s allocations process.
It noted that four weeks before the end of the 2021/22 financial year, only £100mn had been paid to local authorities, out of “up to” £600mn expected.
The committee suggested successful projects may have overstated how “shovel ready” they were in order to achieve the necessary departmental scores, before then being “beset with delays” as a result.
A spokesman for the Local Government Association said the competitive bidding process was creating “uncertainty” and using up “vital” council resources. “Any delay to the distribution of vital funds will inevitably have an impact on what can they deliver,” he added.
The levelling up department said it was working to open the portal “as soon as possible” for the second round of bids. “Once it’s open, it will be live for two weeks to give applicants time to put their bids in,” the department added.