The government is facing a legal challenge over claims it funnelled cash to Tory areas with its “levelling-up” fund.
The leafy market town constituencies of Rishi Sunak and Robert Jenrick are among areas to benefit from an unusual funding formula that critics accused of amounting to “pork parallel politics”.
Now legal campaigners from the the Good Law Project will take the government to court contending that the design of the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund is unlawful.
They cite an investigation by the National Audit Office, which found that the government’s list of targets for the cash had been published without supporting information to explain why they had been chosen.
The House of Commons’ cross party Public Accounts Committee had also said the lack of transparency had left to concerns of “political bias” in the allocation of funds.
Forty out of the first 45 schemes to be approved in March had at least one Conservative MP.
In a letter of claim sent last week, the campaigners argue that the project is unlawful on four counts.
They say ministers appear to have breached their duty under the equality act to carry out an equalities impact assessment, breached their common law duty of transparency, acted irrationally because of flaws in their methodology, and that “decisions were tainted by irrelevant considerations/improper purpose, namely the electoral advantage (or potential electoral advantage) of the Conservative party”.
Jolyon Maugham, the barrister who founded the campaign group, said: “If you think that it’s coincidence that Tory marginals are huge beneficiaries I have a fine bridge to sell you. To ensure the Tories don’t use public money for party purposes, the Good Law Project is suing.”
The campaigners cite Chris Hanretty, Professor of Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, who looked at the funding formula and evidence presented by the National Audit Office and government.
“On the basis of the data collated by the ministry and published by the NAO, there is robust evidence that ministers chose towns so as to benefit the Conservatives in marginal Westminster seats,” he wrote.
“This evidence is robust in the sense that the effects persists even when controlling for other town characteristics that might justifiably affect selection.
“Choosing towns to benefit a particular party goes against the seven principles of public life (the ‘Nolan principles’), and in particular the obligation to ‘take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias’.”
The Good Law Project has previously challenged the government to court over alleged cronyism in PPE contacts, clean air, and access to remote education during the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “The £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund is open to all places in Great Britain and will play a vital role in helping to support and regenerate communities.
“The published methodology makes clear the metrics used to identify places judged to be most in need. It would not be appropriate to comment on potential legal action.”