Some of the most deprived towns in England have been left out of a scheme to boost funding due to “cherry picking” by ministers, a Catholic MP has said.
Chairwoman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Meg Hillier made the claim after a report into how localities were selected to share in the £3.6 billion boost for towns was published.
Labour MP Ms Hillier said a study into the procedure by the National Audit Office (NAO) indicated nine out of 10 towns were ruled out of the competition for funding with no explanation.
The NAO report looked into how the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) selected the 101 towns that it invited to bid for up to £25 million, or up to £50 million in exceptional circumstances, from the £3.6 billion Towns Fund for England.
Ms Hillier said: “This NAO report shows that some of the most deprived towns in England will be left behind once again.
“Nine out of 10 towns were ruled out with no explanation before they even reached the competition’s starting line, while some relatively affluent towns are still in the running.
“Ministers relied on flimsy, cherry-picked evidence to choose the lucky towns.
“Those that lost out have not yet had the chance to make their case.”
The fund is aimed at providing towns with money to tackle issues such as an ageing population, limited regional economic opportunities, and lack of investment.
The 101 selected towns were asked last autumn to submit a plan on how they would spend the funding and what it will achieve.
The NAO report looked at how the department chose the selected locations using a system of scoring, filtering and prioritising 1,082 towns across England.
Ministers then selected the areas to be asked to bid for Town Deals using the assessments to guide them, the NAO said.
The NAO found some towns classed as ‘low priority’ areas, such as Cheadle, were selected and the reasons given by ministers for choosing them included criteria, like poor transport links, that were not used by officials to score the towns.
The report stated: ‘Officials acknowledged that the scoring of each town was designed as a guide for ministers and was not the only way to assess eligibility.
‘Officials recognised that some towns would be in similar situations, and a degree of qualitative judgement between picking towns with similar characteristics was inevitable.
‘Ministers’ selections resulted in towns being selected with lower scores than some other towns that were not selected.
‘Officials concluded that the overall selection was acceptable because ministers had selected all 40 high-priority towns and provided a rationale for each of the towns selected from the medium- and low-priority groups.’
An MHCLG spokeswoman said: “It is completely untrue to suggest that nine out of 10 towns were ruled out with no explanation. This claim completely ignores the NAOs’ detailed report, which shows that the Government put in place a robust process to identify towns for Town Deals.
“Furthermore, the report shows that the more affluent half of towns were ruled out, and the 40 most deprived towns were rightly favoured, with the remainder selected from a shortlist considering of a wide range of evidence.
“There were many factors to consider in the selection of towns and we are confident the process we took was comprehensive, robust and fair. We will deliver on our commitment to level up this country.”
Picture: Boarded up homes. (Rui Vieira/PA).