Labour has written to Michael Gove to ask why his department reportedly supported an award of £330,000 from a government fund for a bid to fill potholes on a former Conservative peer’s driveway.
In a letter, shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy demands Mr Gove release the criteria on which the decision was made, explain what steps were taken to ensure Tory councillors weren’t lobbied, and prove taxpayers’ money was protected at all times.
It comes after a report in the Daily Mail alleged that the 8th Viscount Gage used £330,000 of taxpayers’ money to repair his driveway.
The story said the government funds were applied for by Charleston Farmhouse – an independently run museum and art gallery within the grounds of Lord Gage’s Firle Estate. The trust said the track needed repair works after “poor drainage” had corroded it.
However, the mile-long drive itself is owned by Lord Gage himself.
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said the money was allocated by the South East Local Enterprise Partnership from their share of the Getting Building Fund to the Charleston Trust.
The Getting Building Fund is a pot totalling £900m worth of grants to deliver jobs, skills, and infrastructure across the country.
The government’s website says the fund’s investment is being targeted “in areas facing the biggest economic challenges as a result of the pandemic”.
“It is supporting the delivery of shovel-ready infrastructure projects, agreed with mayors and Local Enterprise Partnerships to boost economic growth, and fuel local recovery and jobs,” the website adds.
In June 2020, Local Enterprise Partnerships were invited to put forward projects for the Getting Building Fund – particularly those that were “shovel ready”.
Labour has suggested that restoring country estate driveways belonging to aristocrats is not an effective use of taxpayers’ money.
Ms Nandy’s letter to Mr Gove states that “filling in potholes for a Conservative peer” cannot have been what the project’s aims meant.
“I would therefore be grateful if you could let me know how this happened and what steps are being taken to ensure it does not happen again,” it reads.
“A good starting point would be to release the criteria on which this decision was made, and how decisions about the Getting Britain Building Fund are made more widely.”
A DLUHC spokesperson said: “Charleston has not received any money from the Levelling Up Fund. This project was allocated funding from the Getting Building Fund by the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, whose independent evaluators assessed it as offering value for money.
“Charleston is a charity-owned, internationally recognised site of cultural importance, with a museum and art gallery, and this work is estimated to provide a £1.6 million boost to the local economy by creating jobs and increasing visitor numbers.”
Lord Gage, 87, inherited his title in 1993 and sat in the Lords until his hereditary peerage was abolished in 1999.
What do the estate and trust have to say?
Bob Baines, estate director at Firle Estate, told the Mail: “The Firle Estate sold Charleston to an independent charity formed in 1980.
“The access track had remained functional for farm traffic and cottages but was unsuitable for Charleston’s visitors travelling in the average family car.
“Charleston successfully applied to the Getting Building Fund to rebuild the track to improve access for visitors, create job opportunities, and support the recovery and growth of the region’s visitor economy.
“The southern extent of the new track beyond Charleston that services the dairy farm and Estate cottages was funded by Firle Estate.”
The Charleston Trust added that the new road “provides safer, easier and greener ways for visitors to reach Charleston and will help support the recovery and growth of the region’s creative and visitor economy”.