Another of “three homes” Jenrick’s achievements – Owl
Ministers ignored the advice of civil servants before ploughing millions into marginal constituencies, a cross-party group of MPs has been told.
George Grylls, Esther Webber www.thetimes.co.uk
Last September, weeks before the general election, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, announced that he would award £25 million each to deprived areas under a regeneration scheme called the Towns Fund.
Mr Jenrick and Jake Berry, a junior housing minister, chose 61 of the 101 towns. Analysis by The Times found that 60 of the areas they selected were in Conservative-held seats or Tory targets. The average majority in those towns was just 3,000. Mr Jenrick also chose his own seat of Newark — one of only two with a majority of more than 10,000 to receive funding.
The government initially refused to publish details of the selection criteria, but was overruled by the National Audit Office (NAO), leading to accusations by the public accounts committee that the government had used “flimsy, cherry-picked evidence” to choose the towns.
Appearing before the committee, Jeremy Pocklington, permanent secretary at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), said that ministers were given an analysis of the relative deprivation of towns, but had chosen “to apply their own qualitative assessment”. He insisted that the government had adopted a “robust, evidence-based approach” in distributing the total sum of £3.6 billion.
Stephen Jones, director of the Cities and Local Growth Unit, told MPs that ministers were advised to consult with mayors during the selection process, but decided not to, saying that they “wanted to do that themselves”. A source close to the process rejected that assessment, saying that ministers had not refused to consult with mayors, but had simply never replied to the suggestion.
Meg Hillier, the Labour chairwoman of the public accounts committee, said the decision not to consult mayors was “very short-sighted”, adding that there were questions about the funding criteria that “still need answering”.
During the campaign, Mr Jenrick promoted the Towns Fund when visiting marginals including Broxtowe, Ipswich and Penistone & Stocksbridge.
The day before the vote, appearing alongside Darren Henry, now the MP for Broxtowe, in Stapleford — a town deemed low priority by civil servants — Mr Jenrick said that the government would “only” commit £25 million to the area if there was a “Conservative majority government” and Mr Henry was “elected to parliament tomorrow”.
A recent National Audit Office report found that ministers had selected all 40 towns deemed a “high priority” on a range of deprivation measures, but that they had also given money to 12 low-priority towns for which the rationale was “varied”.
An MHCLG spokesman said: “The report showed that the more affluent towns were ruled out, and the 40 most deprived towns were rightly favoured, with the remainder selected from a shortlist that considered a wide range of evidence.”