Robert Jenrick directed a government regeneration scheme that targeted millions of pounds in grants at marginal Conservative seats before the last election.
A report in the National Audit Office (NAO), released today, has revealed the process by which ministers selected 101 English towns to each benefit from a £25 million boost to their economies last September.
More than 60 of those towns were chosen by a group of ministers led by Robert Jenrick, the housing and communities secretary. Analysis by The Times found that all but one of them were either Conservative-held seats, or Tory targets before the election.
Of the seats held by Conservative MPs, eight-in-ten had majorities of less than 5,000. Each Labour seat targeted for funding was won by the Conservatives in December’s election.
Just two towns chosen had comfortable majorities of more than 10,000 before the election – one of which was Newark, Jenrick’s seat.
‘Flimsy, cherry-picked evidence’
The report is likely to pile further pressure onto the housing secretary, who has already faced scrutiny over his approval of a housing development backed by a major Tory donor, which he signed off on against the advice of officials.
Meg Hillier, who chairs the public accounts committee in the Commons, told reporters she would look into the report.
She said: “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.
“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 £3.6 billion towns fund was unveiled soon after Boris Johnson entered Downing Street, as part of an early pledge to “rebalance growth” across England after Brexit.
The towns selected were published by Jenrick in September, but the criteria by which they were chosen has not been revealed until now.
‘Matter of urgency’
According to the NAO report, officials came up with seven criteria for deciding which towns should receive cash – including income, low productivity and exposure to Brexit.
While all 40 high-priority towns were automatically selected for funding, the remaining 61 were chosen at ministers’ discretion – 12 were officially classed as “low priority”, with nine of those marginals.
Steve Reed, the shadow communities secretary, told The Times: “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.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government added: “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.”