Mayoral candidate Andy Preston has slammed Middlesbrough’s Labour councillors for attempting to “bribe” voters by launching a £1.3m Community Action Fund just weeks before the mayoral and local council election.
Preston, who announced on Monday that he will stand as an independent in the mayoral election on May 2, described the fund’s launch as a “cynical” and “immoral” attempt by the Labour-led council to win votes.
The businessman and charity leader insisted that having Labour’s mayoral candidate Cllr Mick Thompson front the launch was a “disgraceful move” to make him look like “a generous benefactor” when, in fact, the money will come from public funds.
And Preston described as “shameless” that the fund was being limited to six wards led by Labour councillors when the Park End and Beckfields ward – one of the town’s very poorest wards but run by three independent councillors – was being omitted from the scheme.
The council say individuals or groups can apply for funding of up to £5,000 to spend within their community.
Tony Parkinson, the council’s chief executive, said getting a share of the money would be “easy”, adding: “We’re not worried about everything working. We’re willing to fund these relatively small scale initiatives and learn from our mistakes.”
Preston is well-known locally for his role running three local charities – Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Foundation, CEO Sleepout and the Fork in the Road charity restaurant, which have raised a combined £5 million in recent years.
But he said: “Middlesbrough Labour is trying to buy votes with public money at the most politically sensitive period in the town’s history.
“For the Labour council to ask their mayoral candidate to head up the fund and present him as some sort of generous benefactor is both cynical and highly misleading.
“I have absolutely no doubt that this is a shameless and brazen attempt to divert money from social services with the forthcoming election in mind.
“I know people have reported Middlesbrough Labour to the Electoral Commission, and rightly so.
“If the fund had been announced one or two years ago it wouldn’t look quite so bad. People would then have said ‘I’m not sure I agree with it’, but this has all the hallmarks of using public money to bribe voters.
“The truth is that I agree with some ideas from Middlesbrough Labour and disagree with others, but this isn’t something I just disagree with – this is an immoral disgrace.”
Preston, who has said he will end town hall secrecy if he wins the election on May 2, said the timing of the fund’s launch left him in “no doubt” of its intention.
“Labour have been in power for many years so they’ve had lots of time to create all kinds of funds to help the disadvantaged communities if that’s what they really wanted to do but they’ve chosen not to until now.
“Money has never been so tight in Middlesbrough. There’s a desperate need for money for the police to fight crime, for social services to help families and young people, for our streets to be improved with litter picking and more.
“But the Labour councillors have chosen to ignore those issues and dream up an extremely vague scheme to give out tax payers’ money willy-nilly.
“It’s not even clear who the money is for or what monitoring there will be to ensure the funds aren’t misused. It’s all very woolly.
“Through the charities I launched, I know a lot about the ins and outs, do’s and don’ts of running a charity fund.
“Supporting our most disadvantaged communities is crucial but it’s vital that funds are handed out thoughtfully, responsibly and with strict monitoring procedures.
“That can all be extremely time-consuming, which I estimate will create at least an additional £75,000 of administrative costs that the council can ill afford.”
And Preston attacked the “injustice” that a disadvantaged ward led by independent councillors had been omitted from accessing the fund.
He said: “To launch such a fund shortly before a sensitive election is bad enough.
“But to deliberately target those wards where Labour councillors sit and will soon be up for re-election is just cynical.
“And to then omit one of the town’s very poorest wards where independent councillors sit – Park End and Beckfields – is just appalling and unjust, especially when those councillors have requested funding for their communities.
“For instance, they’ve opened the fund to the Hemlington ward, which is better off than Park End and Beckfields in the government’s indices of depravation.
“While Labour clearly only want to support Labour voters, I would look to launch a more robust, more considered community scheme for the whole town.
“I’d be a mayor for everyone, not just the areas that vote for me. No areas should be banned from applying for a fund that comes from the public’s pockets.”
Preston set up Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Foundation in 2011, and has since convinced 50 local companies and individuals to give the charity financial support, raising more than £3 million for local charities, community groups and the most disadvantaged Teessiders.
He also runs Middlesbrough-based national charity CEO Sleepout, convincing 2,000 businesspeople to get sponsored to sleep rough for a night in venues across the country. The fund recently reached the £2 million fundraising mark for causes fighting poverty and homelessness, with 15% of funds coming back to Teesside.