An announcement by Chris Grayling of Government funding for a study into a possible new road has raised controversy after the transport secretary used the announcement to promote local Conservative candidates.
Mr Grayling announced on a visit to East Sussex earlier this week that the Government will spend £3m on a survey into the possibility of a new dual carriageway section of road north of the railway between Lewes and Polegate.
The announcement was welcomed by the local council but its timing has proved controversial, with rival political parties in the area calling it a ‘bribe’ and ‘electioneering’.
Maria Caulfield and Chris Grayling alongside the A27
The announcement was made in conjunction with Maria Caulfield, MP for Lewes in the last Parliament and Conservative general election candidate for the area, and the former Conservative MP for Eastbourne and current candidate, Caroline Ansell. Both are marginal constituencies.
Ms Caulfield has posted on her website a letter from Mr Grayling disclosing the decision. The letter is dated 19 April - the day after the election was announced.
Mr Grayling stated in his letter that he would be asking Highways England to allocate £3m to develop a ‘larger’ A27 scheme from £75m previously allocated for ‘smaller-scale improvements'.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office told Transport Network that Mr Grayling had announced the funding in this letter, with his announcement this week being a ‘political’ re-announcement, rather than a Government announcement.
During election campaigns, both government departments and ministers are expected to observe non-statutory purdah rules and not make official announcements or decisions that could be seen as party political. While the period of purdah for the general election began at midnight on 21 April, a re-announcement after that date for party purposes would not be seen as a breach of purdah.
Alex Hough, Green Party candidate for Eastbourne, told Transport Network: ‘It does seem extraordinary (or maybe not) that the purdah rules can be sidestepped so neatly.’
She added: ‘Less than a month before the election, a “larger scheme” (presumably a dual carriageway) is dangled. Then, presumably after the election, it will be quietly dropped when the outcry at trampling over our precious National Park takes over.’
A spokesman for Highways England told Transport Network that Mr Grayling had met the Government-owned company’s chief executive, Jim O’Sullivan, on 19 April and that the funding for the study was discussed at this meeting.
East Sussex County Council said in a statement: ‘We have a long-standing policy that supports an upgrade of the A27 between Lewes and Polegate to a dual carriageway - which we believe would ease congestion and boost our local economy. This funding enables the business case for improving the road to be taken to the next stage.’
Transport Network has also approached Mr Grayling and Ms Caulfield for comment.
Last week the Crown Prosecution Service announced that a number of Conservatives elected to Parliament in 2015 would not face criminal charges over election spending allegations.