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Labour has demanded ministers explain why £330,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent on repairing a pothole-ridden road reportedly owned by a former Tory peer.
Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling-up secretary, called on the government to say “how this happened and what steps are being taken to ensure it does not happen again”.
It came after the Daily Mail reported the money had been spent on improving the road on land owned by the eighth Viscount Gage. He inherited his title in 1993 and was removed from the House of Lords, alongside the majority of his fellow hereditary peers, in 1999.
The lane leads to Charleston, an artists’ house and studio museum in the South Downs in East Sussex.
According to the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), “the access track is currently in a poor condition due to drainage issues which have led to a broken surface with cracks and large potholes”.
It added: “The poor quality of the access track discourages visitors from making repeat visits to Charleston and impacts on the ability of Charleston to grow their events and festivals programme.”
Charleston received £89,293 from the government’s Getting Building Fund in November 2020, with an additional £240,542 granted the following July for a new cycle path and to resurface the entire access road.
The Charleston Trust was the lead applicant, but according to a business case presented to the LEP for the second tranche of funding, the Firle Estate was also listed as a partner for “providing project coordination and advice in support of the project”. Gage manages the estate, according to its website.
Nandy said she was surprised to learn about the use of taxpayers’ money in the context of Boris Johnson’s commitment to “levelling up”.
She quoted Johnson stressing that the Getting Building Fund was designed to “finally tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades” and “mend the indefensible gap in opportunity and productivity and connectivity between the regions of the UK”.
Nandy said: “Filling in potholes for a Conservative peer surely cannot have been what he meant.”
She called for the release of the criteria that the decision was based on, and said that the government should demonstrate “taxpayer money was protected at all times”.
In a letter to the levelling-up secretary, Michael Gove, Nandy added: “Chronic underfunding of our roads, rail and buses is a problem for millions of us. I hope you will be able to agree that government funding must be allocated fairly and opportunity spread far more widely than this egregious decision suggests.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing said the money had been allocated by the LEP, whose “independent evaluators assessed it as offering value for money”. They added: “Charleston is a charity-owned, internationally recognised site of cultural importance, with a museum and art gallery, and this work is estimated to provide a £1.6m boost to the local economy by creating jobs and increasing visitor numbers.”
The Firle Estate was also contacted for comment.