Government accused of funelling taxpayers cash away from safe seats to marginals

Labour accused the government of "gerrymandering" and leaving communities out.

The government has been accused of funneling taxpayer support away from towns in safe seats towards those in marginal constituencies ahead of the 2019 election.

Commenting on the National Audit Office’s (NAO) new report on how the Towns Fund was allocated, Labour’s Steve Reed said he had “serious concerns that ministers may have allocated funding for political gain at the 2019 election”.

Reed implied this was “gerrymandering” which “breaks strict rules on impartiality” and had left many deprived communities out.

The accusations stem from decisions made in September 2019, when the government invited 101 towns across England to bid for between £25m and £50m in funding.

On announcing this funding, Robert Jenrick said it would “level-up our great towns”. But the NAO’s report shows many towns were excluded while others which officials judged to be less needy were selected.

Many of the deprived towns missing out were in constituencies which the Tories were either certain to win or never going to win. And many of the less deprived towns unexpectedly invited to apply for funding were in towns the Tories hoped to win at the next election.

Civil servants from the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government had ranked England’s towns according to factors like deprivation, productivity and exposure to Brexit.

Instead of choosing the towns in each region which ranked highest though, ministers in Robert Jenrick’s department then intervened. They invited some towns to apply for funding and excluded others which had been ranked higher.

Of the 40 towns ranked as ‘high priority’ by officials, ministers invited all 40 to apply for funding. These include towns in both safe seats and marginals.

Of the 318 towns ranked by officials as ‘medium priority’ though, ministers selected 49. These 49 were not those which had been ranked as most in need.

The ‘medium priority’ towns which missed out include those like Salford, South Shields and Blackburn, which are in safe Labour constituencies. They also include towns like Folkestone, Sheerness and Barnstaple which are in safe Tory constituencies.

The towns which were invited to apply despite ranking lower include several marginal seats like Norwich, Ipswich and Crawley.

Ministers also invited 12 towns to apply despite civil servants ranking them as ‘low priority’. These towns were disproporitonately likely to be marginal seats.

They were: Newhaven, Southport, Glastonbury, Leyland, Todmorden, St Ives, Stocksbridge, Stapleford, Redditch, Brighouse, Morley and Cheadle.

Of these, three-quarters are in constituencies with majorities of less than 5,000 votes. In the UK as a whole, only around one-quarter of seats have majorities smaller than 5,000.

The minister in charge of the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government is Robert Jenrick.

Jenrick has recently been accused of inappropriately intervening in the planning process to help billionaire Tory donor Richard Desmond.

Joe Lo is a co-editor of Left Foot Forward

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