“Zahawi defends Opportunity Areas initiative to MPs”

By Dan Parton

| 15 May 2019

Minister for children and families Nadhim Zahawi has dismissed accusations that Opportunity Areas suck money from other disadvantaged areas - claiming they offer value for money and the "best chance" of boosting social mobility.

Zahawi defended the £72m initiative at a hearing of the parliamentary education committee, which earlier this month highlighted criticisms of the scheme, launched in October 2016.

The minister said he would like to see the scheme extended beyond its deadline of October this year, during questioning from the cross-party group of MPs which has been examining its record.

Zahawi praised how the funds reach local authorities after losing just £2m to administration costs. Of that £70m, 90 per cent goes to frontline programmes, Zahawi said.

Responding to a suggestion from committee chair Robert Halfon MP, that Opportunity Areas are like a "large quango", the minister claimed: "It is quite an efficient way of bringing stakeholders together, deciding on the specific challenges in that area - as they know best."

He said that those involved are from the voluntary sector, as well as running schools and local businesses, which work together to ask "uncomfortable questions", around the challenges being faced and what can be delivered.

"We worked with local teams who understand the characteristics of the local area to develop their plans and then we backed them," he said.

"How does this do better? Because it is locally produced it is better than the centre knowing best.

"We measure outcomes for each plan and what has and hasn't worked.

"This is the best chance I have seen of something succeeding in making a real difference in social mobility for the most disadvantaged areas of the country."

There were also questions around frustration at slower than expected progress, which Zahawi countered by saying that was down to giving local teams time to devise plans and deliver on them, rather than instructing them from central government.

"They want to get it right, be evidence-based and evidence-led, which is why it was slower in terms of getting out and delivering programmes that make the difference,' he said.

Hannah Streatfeild, deputy director of Opportunity Areas, said continuous monitoring had revealed a "green shoot of impact", adding: "That's really important for us in terms of the local areas seeing what is and isn't working and what changes need to be made."

When asked about the future, Zahawi said that he would like to see the programme extended beyond its three-year remit.

"Because I think we are beginning to see some really good work coming through," he said. "I want it to be longer."

However, he qualified his comments by noting that it would be decided in the forthcoming Spending Review.

"I will do my utmost to convince Treasury it is important work," he said, adding: "Like every other minister, I need to make sure I deliver the evidence. I am convinced this infrastructure is right and worth us continuing to invest in."