An inquiry by parliament’s spending watchdog into how ministers allocated grants from the government’s £3.6bn Towns Fund has raised concerns over political bias.
The cross-party public accounts committee said it was “not convinced by the rationales for selecting some towns and not others” when the Towns Fund – which is supposed to help deprived or struggling areas in England – was distributed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government (MHCLG) in 2019.
The justifications ministers offered for selecting individual towns were “vague and based on sweeping assumptions”, according to the committee, and raised concerns over the decisions being politically motivated.
The report comes after Communities secretary Robert Jenrick earlier this year denied having any role in selecting his own constituency, Newark, for a £25m grant under the scheme.
Jenrick said the award had been signed off by the then Communities minister, Jake Berry, while he had approved a grant for Darwen in Berry’s constituency.
Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said the system gave “every appearance of having been politically motivated”.
“MHCLG must be open and transparent about the decisions it made to hand out those billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, and what it expects to deliver,” she said.
‘Weak and unconvincing’
The Towns Fund scheme was originally launched “at pace” in July 2019 to support struggling towns across England.
Officials in the department then drew up a ranked priority list of 541 towns based on need and potential for development.
While the top 40 ‘high priority’ locations were all confirmed, ministers then chose a further 61 ‘medium and low priority’ communities from the rest of the list, including one ranked just 536th.
Although the department was supposed to record the “rationale” for choosing some towns and not others, the committee said it was not convinced by some of the reasons given.
“The selection process was not impartial,” the committee concluded.
The committee added that the reasons given by the department for not publishing more information about the selection process were “weak and unconvincing”.
It said concerns had been heightened by press statements which wrongly claimed the National Audit Office had concluded its procedures were “robust”.
The department’s permanent secretary, Jeremy Pocklington, said he was satisfied the requirements of “propriety and regularity” had been met.
Yet, the committee said it was “disappointed” that a summary of his assessment remained unpublished.
“This lack of transparency has fuelled accusations of political bias in the selection process, and has risked the civil service’s reputation for integrity and impartiality,” it said.
The MHCLG spokesperson said: “We completely disagree with the committee’s criticism of the town fund selection process, which was comprehensive, robust and fair.
“The Towns Fund will help level up the country, creating jobs and building stronger and more resilient local economies.”
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