The UK’s defence secretary – a potential future prime minister – is accused of meddling with planning rules to get a top-secret £5 billion cyber warfare centre sited on the border of his constituency.
Senior officials say Ben Wallace personally intervened to replace a “traffic light” selection system (green, amber, red) with one consisting only of green lights, to make sure the new National Cyberforce headquarters (NFC) was located near the tiny village of Samlesbury, east of Preston.
Wallace’s allies say he was only doing his job as an MP; others that his intervention fits a pattern of increasingly brazen Conservative pork barrel politics. They accuse MPs of misusing money meant for “levelling up” and the country’s poorest towns to shore up majorities in target and marginal seats – or just their own.
- In 2020 Robert Jenrick, the then communities secretary, secured a £25 million grant for his Newark constituency from the £3.6 billion Towns Fund administered by his department. The fund was meant for the UK’s 101 most “left behind” towns but Newark featured on no list of deprived places and the Times’ Matthew Parris described it as “about as left behind as Harrogate”.
- Sixty of 61 grants not signed off by ministers – i.e. those not subject to special scrutiny – went to towns in constituencies won by Conservatives in the 2019 election. Forty of 45 grants from the Towns Fund announced in the 2021 budget went to towns in Conservative constituencies.
- The Richmondshire local authority in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s north Yorkshire seat was prioritised above its worse-off neighbour, Barnsley, for money from the £4.8 billion Levelling-up fund last year. So were four other authorities in Conservative constituencies held by cabinet members, while Labour complained that poorer boroughs such as Coventry, Plymouth, Salford and the Wirral were relegated to a second tier.
Community Renewal Fund
- Despite its name, only a quarter of the fund’s £220 million has been given to the UK’s most deprived communities, the Local Government Chronicle reported last year. Seven of 100 areas so far targeted were at the time represented by cabinet ministers.
Sources close to the Samlesbury selection process say senior defence ministry officials were angered by Wallace’s intervention and that more appropriate locations had been rejected without clear justification. They said Samlesbury – where thousands of high-paying jobs will now be created, including for Wallace’s constituents – had never been on any list of candidate sites.
- Secrecy. The NCF, to be run jointly by GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence, has the operational posture of “special forces”, meaning those involved can’t talk about its personnel or operations and are not even allowed to discuss alternative locations. Multiple sources say Manchester was in the running, but a Freedom of Information request returned no information about alternative sites considered.
- Security. If Wallace’s comments are any guide this site will be a critical component of UK national security, underlining the argument for transparency in how it was selected. “The best part of defence is offence,” he told MPs in February, when he said the UK was ready to launch retaliatory cyberattacks on Russia.
- Recusal. Were the Samlesbury site to be just a mile further west it would have been in Wallace’s Wyre and Preston North constituency and the ministerial code would have required him to recuse himself from the decision to locate the NCF there.
A source close to the defence secretary defended his intervention, stating that “the process he inherited was skewed towards a select few big cities without any reason and ran counter to the Government’s objective of levelling up”.
A government spokesperson didn’t deny Wallace had intervened but said: “the decision to locate the NCF in this region resulted from an extensive selection process, including a business case which took into account the economic and social impacts.”
Labour takes a different view. “These decisions should be made on the benefit to national security, not the benefit to the defence secretary,” says John Healey, shadow defence secretary. “To clear up concerns about probity in the process and possible breaches of the Ministerial Code, the MoD should disclose in full to Parliament the assessments and advice on which this decision was taken, including the list of other locations which were rejected.”
Note to the ministry: this isn’t going away.
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