While councils in Wales have welcomed Westminster's intention to pump more money into communities as part of Boris Johnson's 'levelling-up agenda', several local authority leaders told MPs the UK government's new 'Plan for Wales' had thrown up more questions than answers and left them scrambling to make sure they had a share of the cash.

The Plan for Wales will see Westminster work directly with councils on community improvement projects, following the PM's 2019 General Election pledge to 'level up', i.e. improve, all parts of the UK.

But as The National reported earlier this week, first minister Mark Drakeford has condemned the Westminster plan, which he says was drawn up without any Welsh Government consultation. He has accused the UK government of trying to undermine the Senedd's responsiblities by cutting them out of the decision-making process.

At a Welsh Affairs Committee meeting, a group of Welsh council leaders said they were happy to hear more money would be invested in Wales but had serious concerns about the way the so-called 'levelling-up agenda' would be rolled out.

Chief among them was a perceived lack of communication from Westminster.

Councils have been invited to bid for a share of funds via two UK-wide schemes - the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund.

But Gwynedd council leader Dyfrig Siencyn told the committee he was "not aware of any dialogue of how these funds are operated".

He added: "We need a three-way conversation between Westminster, Welsh Government and local authorities, because otherwise we’re working against each other."

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RCT council leader Andrew  Morgan said there was "some cause for concern" the Welsh Government had been cut out of Westminster discussions with local authorities.

The "strategies" for community funding in Wales, he said, "have to be joined up".

There is concern, too, about the competitive nature of the bidding process. There is no certainty that every council will receive an equal share of the money, if any share at all. 

Swansea council leader Rob Stewart told MPs there was no guarantee a share of the 'levelling-up' money had been ring-fenced for Wales, and as a result he feared local authorities here may end up receiving less money than they did through previous EU-led schemes.

And with councils needing to bid against each other for a share of the 'levelling-up' pots, he said there was "inevitably going to be an element of disappointment," which left him asking himself whether the funding would "actually get to where the need is".

"We could go from a position of having [a share of the EU schemes'] £375 million a year to having nothing.," he said. "We certainly want reassurance the process... has to be fair, has to be equitable, and has to deliver for Wales."

Powys council leader Rosemarie Harris said rural areas would be "grateful" for the chance to benefit from more funding, but voiced concerns over the "time pressures" of the Plan for Wales.

Councils must submit bids for the first round of funding by mid-June and begin spending that money by next March.

"The timescales have concerned all of us," she told MPs. "It’s put a lot of pressure on officers, and of course that’s public money.

"Quite often we’re paying consultants to help us get the bids together, and I know that’s happening in a lot of authorities, because we simply didn’t have the time to get the bids together."

Cllr Siencyn said Westminster's deadlines meant councils were "all now rushing to find projects which are ‘shovel-ready’" rather than being given more time to prepare bids for more important projects.

Cllr Harris said timescales posed "a risk of reputational damage" to councils "if we haven’t got the project that we would have ordinarily prioritised".

Causing councils to rush into bids could end up defeating the whole point of the 'levelling-up agenda', Cllr Stewart said.

"If we have a process before us that encourages people to rush in with bids that are not as strategically aligned as they could be... then you may not reach those 'levelling-up' outcomes," he told MPs.

"And I’m yet to hear, what are we levelling-up against, and what are going to be the measures of 'levelling-up'?" he added. "It sounds great, I hope it’s not just rhetoric, and I would hope that it actually has a set of measures at the end of it.

"You could be arguing that we’re trying to 'level up' [parts of Wales] against the South East of England. Is that the plan here – to get us to the same point? Or is it something else?"

The UK government's regional growth minister, Luke Hall, said Westminster's plans to 'level up' Wales could be defined as "improving living standards an opportunity in some of the communities that have been neglected for far too long under successive governments around the UK".

He told the committee it was his government's "role and responsibility" to deliver the 2019 manifesto commitment to 'level up' the UK.

Defending Westminster's approach to the Plan for Wales, Hall said the investment would "bind the union together and build relationships we haven’t had for years, if not decades, with communities in Wales".

There had been "a huge amount of enthusiasm" for the plans, he added.

David Davies, the under-secretary of state for Wales, told the committee he rejected the claims Westminster's approach was undermining the union, rather than strengthening it.

"We can ensure greater scrutiny of all projects," he said. "We can ensure potentially extra money goes into Wales."

But Vaughan Gething, the Welsh Government's new economy minister, told the committee the UK's approach to 'levelling-up' had been "really unhelpful".

"There’s a pretty obviously confrontational approach in looking to override devolved powers," he said. "It is what it is, and there’s no point trying to pretend that’s not happening."

Mr Gething said the Welsh Government had sought to improve the way funding was distributed under the old EU schemes by taking a more "regional and strategic focus".

By working directly with councils and encouraging them to bid competitively, the UK government would reverse these improvements, he told MPs.

"My concern is the lesson-learning from European funding has not been taken on board and that’s deliberately an attempt to circumvent the WG’s role," he added.

Mr Gething said Welsh ministers would be "happy to engage" in a "reset" of the relationship with Westminster "rather than have a confrontational approach".

But, he said, the UK government must take the opportunity to "recognise the mandate the Welsh Government has".

Following the meeting, committee member Beth Winter said the UK's approach to 'levelling-up' Wales was "not acceptable".

The Labour MP for Cynon Valley said Westminster's "rhetoric around 'levelling-up' is not matched by the detail of their plans for Wales".

As well as criticising Welsh secretary Simon Hart for not turning up "to defend these plans," Winter warned Wales could end up with "only a fraction" of the investment on offer, with the Welsh Government "frozen out" of decisions and councils "pitted against each other to fight for the scraps from the table".