Ministers refuse to share MHCLG advice on controversial Towns Fund cash

Public Accounts Committee demanded sight of accounting officer approval confirming ministers' picks for £3.6bn scheme met Managing Public Money requirements
MHCLG's Marsham Street headquarters in Westminster, photographed by David Pearson

By Jim Dunton

19 Jan 2021

Ministers have turned down a request from MPs to reveal the top-level advice on the selection of “left behind” towns picked to participate in £3.6bn Towns Fund amid concerns some choices were politically motivated. 

Members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee last year warned that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s selection process for Towns Fund recipients had put the civil service’s reputation for impartiality at risk.

They called on the department to publish the accounting officer assessment for the summer 2019 process that saw 101 towns selected from a pool of 541 to take part in the Towns Fund. Only 40 of the successful towns were the most-deprived under MHCLG criteria, with the remainder chosen from pools of towns categorised as “medium priority” and “low priority”.

PAC members acknowledged that MHCLG perm sec Jeremy Pocklington had assured them he was satisfied the selection criteria met propriety and regularity requirements. But they said the process “was not impartial” and demanded to see the accounting officer assessment confirming the programme met the requirements of HM Treasury’s Managing Public Money guidance – likely signed off by Pocklington’s predecessor Melanie Dawes.

In its just-published Treasury Minutes response to the Public Accounts Committee, the government said current government practice “precludes the sharing of full accounting officer advice with parliament”.

The response said “much more detail” about the selection process for the Towns Fund had been made available than had been the case for similar programmes in the past.

“The full accounting officer advice was shared with the NAO in the usual way and a summary of the accounting officer advice was provided to the committee in October 2020 and has also been published on the Towns Fund GOV.UK page,” it added. MHCLG published a summary of the accounting officer advice online on Thursday last week.

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick’s Newark constituency – ranked as one of the medium-priority towns by MHCLG officials – is due to receive up to £25m from the Towns Fund.

Last year he told the BBC that the decision on the Nottinghamshire town’s place on the programme had been taken by then-MHCLG colleague Jake Berry.

Jenrick said he had granted scheme funding to a town in Berry’s Rossendale and Darwen constituency.

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