Levelling up to new heights of corruption

Few towns in the South West will receive funding from the government’s Towns Fund – and now we know why.

In September 2019, local government secretary Robert Jenrick published a list of 101 places that would receive help to develop bids for funding from the government’s £3.6 billion Towns Fund. There was suspicion at the time that these towns had been selected not, as Jenrick claimed, to ensure “that prosperity and opportunities are available to everyone in this country” but primarily for electoral reasons.

Yesterday, those suspicions were confirmed when senior civil servants gave evidence to parliament’s public accounts committee. Jeremy Pocklington, permanent secretary at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, told the committee that ministers had been given an analysis of relative deprivation, but had instead “chosen to apply their own qualitative assessments”.

And what “qualitative assessments” might those have been? The answer becomes clear from an examination of the towns on the list: most were in constituencies with a narrow Conservative majority or where the Tories hoped to make electoral gains.

The Times reports that 61 of these towns were personally picked by Jenrick, along with junior housing minister Jake Berry. Of these, 60 were in Conservative constituencies with an average majority of 3000 or in seats – many of them northern Labour seats in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ – that the Tories were targeting.

Steven Jones, director of the Cities and Local Growth Unit, told the committee that ministers had refused to consult with mayors during the selection process. This, no doubt, would only have cramped their style.

As it was, Jenrick and other ministers toured marginal seats during the election campaign dropping heavy hints that Tory voting areas would be rewarded with £25 million in cash.  In Broxtowe – a seat won for the Conservatives in 2017 by Anna Soubry with a 1.6% majority – Jenrick informed voters that the money would only be forthcoming if the Johnson-backing Tory candidate Darren Henry “was elected to parliament tomorrow”.

Only nine out of the 101 towns benefiting from the Towns Fund are in the South West. Of these, five – Glastonbury, Bridgwater, Torquay, Bournemouth and Swindon – are in constituencies that already had substantial Tory majorities. The others are all in seats seen as Tory marginals: Penzance and St Ives (in the St Ives constituency, won by a Tory with a majority of 0.6% in 2017), Camborne (where Labour had come close to unseating George Eustice), and Truro (a Remain-voting area with a narrow Tory majority in 2017).

Both Glastonbury and St Ives had been specified by civil servants as being “low priority” for investment. Nor were Bournemouth, Swindon or Truro identified as being anywhere near the top of the list in terms of economic deprivation. But that, clearly, was never really the point.

The money that Cornish towns stand to receive from the Towns Fund is dwarfed by the annual £60 million in EU investment that has been lost to Cornwall as a result of Brexit. People in Cornwall were promised, both before the 2016 referendum and by Boris Johnson in September 2019, that government would match this lost funding. These promises are now looking very hollow indeed.

image by the author

But for Robert Jenrick and his fellow ministers, alleviating economic hardship and investing in a better future for the people of Cornwall and the South West has always been a very low priority. For them, money is only worth spending if there are votes in it for the Conservative Party. Jenrick, remember, is the man who earlier this year was found to have illegally waved through a luxury housing development for the billionaire Tory donor Richard Desmond. As Elizabeth David-Barrett, director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex, said at the time: “In most previous governments, Robert Jenrick would have resigned well before now.”

The way towns were selected for inclusion in the Towns Fund reveals a Conservative Party engaged in pork-barrel politics of the basest sort. The only “levelling up” involved is to new levels of cynical voter manipulation and – let’s not be shy of saying it – outright corruption.