A £1.6 billion package promised by Theresa May for run-down towns has been dismissed by opposition MPs as a “pathetic” attempt to win Labour support for her Brexit deal.
The money, which will be spread over seven financial years to 2025-2026, is a “desperate bribe”, shadow chancellor John McDonnell claimed.
But Communities Secretary James Brokenshire said the money would be “transformative” and was not conditional on support for the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement.
Downing Street confirmed that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will return to Brussels on Tuesday to continue their efforts to secure legally-binding changes to ensure that the UK is not trapped permanently by backstop arrangements designed to keep the Irish border open.
But Mrs May’s spokesman declined to discuss reports that Mr Cox has dropped attempts to secure a time limit for the backstop or a unilateral exit mechanism, telling reporters: “We are now at a particularly critical stage in these negotiations. I’m not going to get into specifics.”
The spokesman said the UK was “definitely making progress” after discussions spanning the past two weeks with the European Commission, he said.
But he added: “There definitely remains more work to be done.”
“Some of it is accurate, much more of it isn’t and what is not is far more significant than what is.
“Complex and detailed negotiations cannot be conducted in public.”
The DUP and the Tory European Research Group (ERG) have made it clear they will not support the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement in crunch Commons votes without such legally binding measures.
Launching the new £1.6 billion Stronger Towns Fund package, Mrs May said: “For too long in our country prosperity has been unfairly spread.
“Communities across the country voted for Brexit as an expression of their desire to see change – that must be a change for the better, with more opportunity and greater control.
“These towns have a glorious heritage, huge potential and, with the right help, a bright future ahead of them.”
But Mr McDonnell branded the initiative a “desperate bribe”.
He said: “This Towns Fund smacks of desperation from a Government reduced to bribing MPs to vote for their damaging flagship Brexit legislation.”
The chairman of Sigoma – a group of 47 councils in the North, Midlands and coastal regions of England – dismissed the new funding as “a drop in the ocean in comparison to the needs of England’s most vulnerable towns and communities”.
Sir Stephen Houghton said: ““This £1.6 billion, spread wafer thin over the next six years, does absolutely nothing to redress the £8 billion funding gap councils face by 2025 and does little to balance the multi-billion pound infrastructure funding gap regions outside London continue to face.”
Mr Brokenshire told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the money was not linked to getting the Brexit deal through.
“This funding is there regardless of the outcome, but obviously we want to see a deal happening, we believe that is what is in the best interests of our country.
“But there is no constitutionality in that sense.”
Labour MP for Stoke Central Gareth Snell said: “The entire allocation for the West Midlands over four years is less than the total value of cuts faced by Stoke-on-Trent City Council alone over the same period.”
Luke Pollard, who represents Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, scorned the £35 million earmarked for towns in the South West, pointing out that it was around the same amount as the settlement agreed with Eurotunnel over the Brexit ferries “shambles”, adding: “What a pathetic mess.”
Rhondda MP Chris Bryant said the money – for English regions – was “corrupt, patronising, pathetic” and “all to appease the Brexit monster”.
Of the £1 billion being allocated using a needs-based formula, the North West gets £281 million, the West Midlands £212 million, Yorkshire and the Humber £197 million, the East Midlands £110 million, the North East £105 million, the South East £37 million, the South West £35 million, and the East of England £25 million.
Another £600 million will be available through a bidding process to communities in any part of the country.