The government’s Towns Fund is no stranger to controversy – but the revelation that 26 of the 30 towns awarded the shared £725 million budget have Conservative MPs adds fuel to the fire.
In March, Chancellor Rishi Sunak was forced to deny favouritism after the previous list of 45 towns receiving a chunk of the £1 billion total budget included 40 with at least one Conservative MP.
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Now in the latest list of 30 new areas benefitting from the fund, just four are represented by non-Tory MPs. This has prompted the chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee to charge the government with “cherry-picking” the areas in receipt of the fund.
It comes as Hartlepool – which in May elected a Conservative MP for the first time since 1974 – has secured £25 million of the budget to spend on a Health and Care Academy, as well as a Civil Engineering Institute.
Redcar, which elected a Conservative MP for the first time ever in 2019, will also receive £25 million, while Bishop Auckland (also with its first Conservative MP in 2019) will receive £33 million.
To get access to the Towns Fund, representatives of the invited towns – including local MPs – must submit a bid to the Towns Fund Board.
Those “invited” were 541 towns of England’s 1,082 deemed to have an income deprivation above the median number. The areas were ranked as being of high, low, or medium priority for funding allocations.
However, in an important Parliamentary Select Committee report in November last year, the selection process from this point onwards was concluded to be “not impartial”.
It turned out that while ministry officials ranked towns against a select set of criteria, government ministers were still given “discretion to choose which individual towns would be eligible to bid”.
This, the report said, led to an unfair competition.
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A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “The selection process for the Towns Fund is comprehensive, robust and fair, based on factors including income deprivation, skills, productivity and investment opportunities. All chosen are in the more deprived areas in the UK.”