Labour has demanded a Cabinet Office investigation into the housing, communities and local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, over how government funding was allocated to his Newark constituency.
The shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, has written to the head of the civil service requesting the investigation into Jenrick and his involvement in the multibillion-pound Towns Fund.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government allocated the investment to Newark, along with 99 other towns, as part of its drive at “levelling up” deprived areas with £3.6bn in funds.
Newark is reportedly the 270th most deprived area in the country and thus not as poor as many other towns in the UK.
The call for an investigation follows a report in the Times that 32 towns on the list fell outside the 300 worst-off in England, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Jenrick, a former corporate lawyer and director at auction house Christie’s, and Jake Berry, his junior minister, were allegedly responsible for choosing 61 of the towns to receive funding. They also chose Darwen, a town in Berry’s constituency.
Reed has requested an investigation into how Newark was chosen for inclusion in the Towns Fund and whether officials advised against it.
Reed also wants to know if Tory-held seats in comparatively affluent towns were prioritised under the initiative, which before the last general election, ministers said was aimed at levelling up so-called left-behind towns.
Earlier this year, Jenrick withstood calls for his resignation after he ensured a controversial housing development was agreed before a new levy was introduced which would have cost millions to its backer, multimillionaire Conservative party donor Richard Desmond.
Documents released showed Desmond, in personal text messages, urged Jenrick to approve his Westferry Printworks development in east London before the community infrastructure levy was introduced. It is believed that this would have saved Desmond £50m. “We don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!” Desmond told the minister.
Jenrick faced accusations of “cash for favours” after it emerged that Desmond had given the Conservatives £12,000 two weeks after the scheme for 1,500 homes was approved, and that Jenrick had sat next to him and viewed a video about the development at a fundraising event.
Jenrick originally approved the development plan in January, overruling Tower Hamlets council and a planning inspector. In the ensuing scandal, a Tory minister suggested voters could consider attending Conservative fundraising events if they wanted to raise planning issues with MPs.
“Hot on the heels of the Westferry scandal, Robert Jenrick yet again has serious questions to answer about allegations that he used the Towns Fund to channel public money to help Conservative party candidates ahead of the general election,” Reed said.
“Mr Jenrick has made an unfortunate habit of overruling officials’ advice to get his own way, just as he did during the Westferry cash-for-favours scandal. Now he has done the same with this blatant example of pork-barrel politics, with public money making its way to help his own re-election campaign.
“Misuse of public funds is a very serious abuse of public trust. Robert Jenrick must come to the House urgently to make a statement on how this money was awarded and submit himself to a full Cabinet Office investigation.”
Jenrick insisted he was not part of the decision-making process regarding Newark as funding for the town was determined by another minister.
A spokesman for Jenrick said: “This reporting is incorrect as the secretary of state did not select his constituency for Towns Fund money.
“To suggest otherwise is misleading, and another minister in the department is responsible for decisions around Newark’s Towns Fund bid, as is normal practice. As made clear in the National Audit Office report, the process was comprehensive, robust and fair – and the Towns Fund will help level up the country.
“Delivering the Towns Fund was a manifesto commitment that the Labour party opposed and offered no alternative to, so it was not surprising that Conservative candidates mentioned it during their campaigns.
“Conservatives in government are investing in our towns to improve the life chances of local people, Labour are resorting to baseless political point-scoring.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “These claims are wrong as the secretary of state did not select Newark for funding. This decision was taken by another minister based on a robust and objective process. That process is set out in the NAO’s detailed report.”