Towns Fund used to boost Conservative election campaign, Labour claims

By George Ryan and Sophie Morris, PA
·4-min read

A £3.6 billion funding pot aimed at helping struggling towns was used to “boost the Conservative Party’s general election campaign”, a Labour frontbencher has claimed.

Shadow housing secretary Steve Reed said there was “growing public concern” about how the flagship Towns Fund was allocated.

It follows the publication of a report last week by the Commons Public Accounts Select Committee which said the process for selecting communities to benefit from the scheme was “not impartial” and risked undermining the integrity of the civil service.

During housing, communities and local government questions, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick defended the project and told the Commons a “robust process” was followed for the allocation of the cash.

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Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick defended the scheme in the Commons (Yui Mok/PA)

Mr Reed said: “There is growing public concern that the Secretary of State may have misused taxpayers’ money from the £3.6 billion Towns Fund to boost the Conservative Party’s general election campaign.

“But he can easily clear the matter up. Will he publish in full the accounting officer’s advice and the full criteria that he and the former minister of state (Jake Berry) used when they blocked funding for towns ranked among the hundred most deprived and instead funnelled millions of pounds to each other’s constituencies ahead of the general election?”

Responding, Mr Jenrick said: “The department has already made clear that a robust process was established. In fact, established before I became secretary of state.

“It was followed to the letter and we will not apologise… for investing in communities that have been under-invested in and under-valued by the party opposite for generations.

“With respect to the accounting officer’s report, accounting officer assessments are not routinely published. That’s a matter for the department and they, I’m sure, will consider it and reply to the select committee in due course.

“But I can assure the honourable gentleman that he will not deter us from our mission to level-up all parts of the country.”

Earlier, the Government faced calls to publish the scientific evidence behind the decision to close places of worship during the second England coronavirus lockdown.

Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell (Romford) said: “Given the very serious implications of criminalising worship and the hardship it has caused churches and religious communities, will the Government commit to publishing its evidence base and consult fully and widely with faith groups before any future decisions over applying restrictions to worship are introduced?”

Coronavirus – Thu Apr 9, 2020
During the lockdown places of worship have had to close, leading some to stream their services online (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Communities minister Kelly Tolhurst replied: “I do not underestimate the concern that this has caused for our religious communities, but the evidence from the scientific community, including Sage, shows that the virus does spread quicker indoors and where people gather and interact.

“We have been incredibly grateful for those who have taken part in the places of worship taskforce for their support and advice. We are continuing to call on their expertise and that of all major faith groups ahead of the regulations ending on December 2, and we will continue to have those conversations over the next two weeks.”

Later, Mr Jenrick said tackling rough sleeping is “a priority” for the Government.

Conservative Bob Blackman (Harrow East) said: “I welcome the Protect programme and the announcements (Mr Jenrick) has made on new homes, but the reality is that the announcement of 3,000 new homes will not help and assist the 30,000 people in total that need accommodation right now.

“So what efforts is he going to make to make sure that safe and secure accommodation is provided to all those potentially threatened with rough sleeping?”

Labour’s shadow housing minister Thangam Debbonaire added: “What does the Secretary of State consider to be different about rough sleeping in a winter lockdown, apart from it being colder and more dangerous than in spring?”

Replying to Mr Blackman, Mr Jenrick said: “I can assure (Mr Blackman) that that is absolutely the priority for my department.

“I am proud that, as of September, we have successfully supported over 29,000 vulnerable people through our efforts, with over 10,000 helped into emergency accommodation and nearly 19,000 already provided with settled accommodation or move on support.

“Very few of those individuals have so far, thankfully, returned to the streets.”