Labour has raised concerns about the management of a flagship levelling up scheme after it emerged that decisions about one local £24m fund were primarily led by a group including the local MP, her husband, and others with personal or business links to some of the plans.
Documents also show that the towns fund board for Stocksbridge in South Yorkshire, co-chaired by Conservative MP Miriam Cates, met for eight months before members began filing details of personal interests, and that the scheme of governance was only published after more than a year.
As well as Cates, her husband, David, also sits on the board, and a local businessman, Ian Sanderson, a business partner of David Cates.
The co-chair is Mark Dransfield, a local property developer from whom Miriam Cates rents her constituency office. He owns a retail park in Stocksbridge directly adjoining two of the proposed local regeneration schemes. Dransfield’s sister-in-law, who formerly worked for his company, sits on a subcommittee.
Board members also include representatives from other local businesses, as well as from Sheffield council and the regional authority.
While there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing, critics say the management of the £24.1m awarded to Stocksbridge, just north of Sheffield, highlights wider worries about oversight by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), which is distributing the £3.6bn fund.
The MHCLG has said it carries out governance reviews of towns fund boards before distributing any money. After Labour sought access to these, junior communities minister Luke Hall said they were “an internal process carried out by MHCLG officials and there are no plans to publish them”.
Sources in Stocksbridge say declarations of interest and other documents were produced after Sheffield city council expressed alarm at the lack of visible governance.
There are also concerns about potential perceived conflicts of interest given some of the projects earmarked for funding by the board. One would involve the regeneration of Manchester Road, the town’s main high street, which adjoins the Fox Valley retail park, which is owned by Dransfield’s company.
Another proposed idea is to build an unusual funicular link between the town centre and Fox Valley, billed as a way to move people up and down a steep hill and as a local tourist attraction.
The board is also seeking to spend at least £2m or more on an all-weather football pitch, even though Stocksbridge is not named on the Football Foundation’s list of priority areas for new facilities in England.
However, others reject any conflict of interest, saying that a revitalised Manchester Road would be an alternative draw to Fox Valley, and that the funicular link is planned as part of a wider regeneration plan for the town.
Steve Reed, Labour’s shadow communities secretary, said the public would be “alarmed to find that important regional development funding schemes are potentially open to serious abuse”.
He said: “Ministers must publish towns deal governance reviews immediately and reassure taxpayers their money is being spent properly and projects are being delivered in their interests”
An MHCLG spokesperson said: “Town deal boards have clear processes for governance and decision-making, and for managing potential conflicts of interest. MHCLG has reviewed the governance of all town deal boards and found no cause for concern.”
Miriam Cates’s office was contacted for comment.