Simon Jenkins www.theguardian.com
Before last year’s election, Boris Johnson’s local government minister, Robert Jenrick, announced a massive £3.6bn of handouts to 101 “left-behind” towns across England. Forty of these were defined by Whitehall as most in need. The remainder were allegedly chosen by two ministers, Jenrick and his number two, Jake Berry. Most were marginal seats, all but one of which voted Tory at the subsequent election. They included Jenrick’s Newark and Berry’s Darwen, neither in the most needy category. (Newark was 270th.) Jenrick even boasted that he had secured an opportunity to future-proof Newark, after it was awarded the maximum £25m grant. He has subsequently insisted that there was a “robust and fair” methodology to the allocations and dismissed as “completely baseless” allegations that he was involved in Newark’s selection.
The grants were strongly condemned by the National Audit Office last July and Labour is now demanding an explanation, which Jenrick is refusing to give. The accusation is that, to a degree, Johnson’s majority of 80 was bought.
Never has Britain’s centralised government been more in the spotlight than now. After over six months of trying single-handedly to suppress coronavirus, Johnson has today accepted what was evident from across Europe, that local government is best at governing locally. His “world-beating” private contractors and beta-quality ministers have failed. He now needs the local knowledge, resources and staff that only elected town and city government can supply.
Local councils are replying that they need power and money if they are to rebuild Whitehall’s chaotic coronavirus regime. They need power to micro-manage social distancing, hospitality and the protection of hospitals and care homes. They need power over local universities, clearly reckless hotspots of infection. Reports of Whitehall arguments into the night suggest that Johnson’s aides are denying them this power. They want to fix the three new tiers of lockdown, their content and their timing.
Local government also desperately needs money, both to make enforcement consensual and to pinpoint the most desperate recoveries in local economies. That restoration cannot be centrally determined. Least of all can it be in the hands of Jenrick. Grants, loans and furloughs cannot be apparently built on an edifice of favouritism and political advantage.
In just a year in office, Jenrick has shown blatant bias in his decisions. He attempted to help the Tory donor Richard Desmond avoid tax by rushing through approval for a housing development in Docklands, a decision that was subsequently overturned. His new planning algorithm will favour property developers in the south. His white paper even invents a class of builder to be excused from regulations governing conserving historic buildings with “earned autonomy”. It’s not clear how those rights can be earned.
Whitehall ministers have for decades banned local councils from raising taxes or loans, forcing them to come cap in hand to the centre for grants and other favours. This has led Britain to the widest disparity between rich and poor regions in west Europe. It has also led to favouritism to contractors and projects more typical of a banana republic. Rumours are already swirling round the sums disbursed to certain companies during coronavirus.
Public funds must be subject to public audit. Yet the towns fund affair showed the National Audit Office to be a paper tiger, and parliament likewise. Vast sums of taxpayers’ money are now splurging into the public and private economy without meaningful control. If Johnson’s post-Covid, post-Brexit Britain must rely on the sweepings of a political pork barrel, the outlook is dire.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist