Boris Johnson facing corruption legal battle over £4.8bn ‘levelling-up fund’ that sent cash to Tory areas

High Court agrees to hear ‘arguable’ case

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 24 August 2021 09:01
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Boris Johnson is facing a corruption legal battle over whether his party has been funnelling taxpayer cash into Tory areas to give it a political advantage.

The High Court will decide whether the PM’s £4.8bn “Levelling Up Fund” unlawfully and systematically sent cash to areas considered to be “of political benefit to the Conservative party”.

Judges agreed to hear a legal challenge brought by the Good Law Project, stating: “The grounds are arguable.”

The lawsuit, formally filed against Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick and Grant Shapps in their government roles, could find that the centrepiece of the government's so-called “levelling-up” agenda is unlawful.

The leafy market town constituencies of Mr Sunak and Mr Jenrick are among the areas to benefit from an unusual funding formula that critics accused of amounting to “pork barrel politics”.

Campaigners cited an investigation by the National Audit Office, which found that the government’s list of targets for the cash had been published without supporting information to explain why they had been chosen.

The House of Commons’ cross-party Public Accounts Committee had also said the lack of transparency had left to concerns of “political bias” in the allocation of funds.

Forty out of the first 45 schemes to be approved under the fund in March had at least one Conservative MP.

Jolyon Maugham, the barrister who founded the campaign group bringing the suit, said at the time: “If you think that it’s coincidence that Tory marginals are huge beneficiaries I have a fine bridge to sell you. To ensure the Tories don’t use public money for party purposes, the Good Law Project is suing.”

The campaigners cited Chris Hanretty, Professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, who looked at the funding formula and evidence presented by the National Audit Office and government.

“On the basis of the data collated by the ministry and published by the NAO, there is robust evidence that ministers chose towns so as to benefit the Conservatives in marginal Westminster seats,” he wrote.

“This evidence is robust in the sense that the effects persist even when controlling for other town characteristics that might justifiably affect selection.

“Choosing towns to benefit a particular party goes against the seven principles of public life (the ‘Nolan principles’), and in particular the obligation to ‘take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias’.”

The Good Law Project has previously challenged the government in court over alleged cronyism in PPE contacts, clean air, and access to remote education during the pandemic.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said in response to the suit at the time: “The £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund is open to all places in Great Britain and will play a vital role in helping to support and regenerate communities.

“The published methodology makes clear the metrics used to identify places judged to be most in need. It would not be appropriate to comment on potential legal action.”

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