Ministers lavished millions on towns in marginal Tory seats before polls

Ministers used a government regeneration scheme to target millions of pounds in grants at marginal Conservative seats before the last election, an analysis by The Times suggests.

Oliver Wright, Policy Editor | George Grylls 

Today a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) reveals the process by which ministers selected 101 towns in England to each benefit from a £25 million boost to their economies last September.

It shows 61 of the towns were chosen at the discretion of ministers led by Robert Jenrick, the housing and communities secretary. An analysis shows that all but one of them were either Conservative-held seats or Tory targets before the election.

Of those held by Conservative MPs, 80 per cent had majorities of less than 5,000. Only one Labour seat targeted for funding did not fall to the Conservatives.

Only two towns chosen had Tory majorities of more than 10,000 before the election, one of which was Mr Jenrick’s seat, Newark.

The revelation is likely to put pressure on Mr Jenrick after controversy over his approval of a housing development backed by a Tory donor against the advice of officials.

Last night Meg Hillier, who chairs the Commons public accounts committee, said it would look into the matter. “This NAO report shows that some of the most deprived towns in England will be left behind once again,” she said. “Taxpayers’ money is not other people’s money and if ministers were so closely involved it might be seen by some as political.”

She added: “Nine out of ten towns were ruled out with no explanation before they reached the starting line, while some affluent towns are still in the running. Ministers relied on flimsy, cherry-picked evidence to choose the lucky towns. Those that lost out have not yet had the chance to make their case.”

The NAO’s findings bear out Times research from November last year which found evidence of the fund being used to boost Tory target seats.

Steve Reed, the shadow communities secretary, said: “There are now serious concerns that ministers may have allocated funding for political gain at the 2019 election, something which breaks strict rules on impartiality.

“The secretary of state must explain as a matter of urgency how ministers decided where to spend this money and why so many communities lost out.”

The £3.6 billion towns fund was unveiled last summer shortly after Boris Johnson entered Downing Street as part of his early pledges to “rebalance growth” across England after Brexit.

Those towns selected to benefit from the scheme were announced by Mr Jenrick in September but his department refused to publish the selection criteria amid criticism that affluent towns had been prioritised over poorer communities. The NAO’s report reveals that officials attempted to create a set of seven criteria for deciding which towns should benefit, including income and skill deprivation, low productivity and exposure to Brexit.

But while ministers accepted a recommendation that all 40 high-priority towns identified be selected to bid for funding they retained discretion over the remaining 61 places allocated.

The NAO report shows that these towns were often less in need of assistance — 12 were officially classed as “low priority’” of which, The Times’s figures suggest, nine were in marginal seats.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “As set out in the report the department put in place a robust process to identify towns for Town Deals, which ministers followed throughout. The selection criteria was set by officials and took into account factors including income deprivation, skills, productivity and investment opportunities.”