Of potholes, patronage and the press: the truth behind a blown-up scandal

A flock of sheep walk along a narrow driveway, surrounded by grass and bare winter trees.
Where sheep may safely graze: the actual Firle Estate driveway. Photo credit: Ginny Smith

The period between Christmas and New Year is usually a quiet news time. This year was different. In the dying days of 2021 a scandal erupted that was rapidly picked up by the print media and went viral on social media.  Sub-editors had a field day. “Virile Viscount uses £330,000 of taxpayers’ money to have half-a-mile of potholes in his driveway filled in”, screamed the headline in the Daily Mail. 

That was it – the hounds were unleashed, and 87-year-old Viscount Gage and the Firle Estate in East Sussex became, for a few days, the subject of prurient national interest and outrage.  

I know the area well, and there was something about the story that didn’t add up. The long driveway through Firle Park (open to the public) to the Gage family’s Elizabethan mansion is perfectly surfaced. So where exactly was this potholed drive he was supposedly receiving taxpayers’ money to restore?

I hold no torch for Gage or the aristocracy in general. Our politics are probably poles apart. But facts, and the language we use, matter. And this is a classic example of what happens when those standards are not met.

The Viscount was said to have pocketed public ‘levelling up’ money

The story of Gage – or the “Virile Viscount” as the paper had it –  broke in the Daily Mail on 28 December.  The opening wording of the report appeared to suggest that the £330,000 was paid out of the government’s Levelling Up Fund, announced by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak in March 2021. It wasn’t. 

It also referred to Gage as “the claimant”. He wasn’t.  

Readers who bothered to continue to the end of the report would have learned that the actual claimant was Charleston House and Museum. Meanwhile, the Mail story was taken up by the Independent, the Mirror and most other national newspapers. 

A grand, large stately home, with low walls in the middle foreground and surrounded by well-mown grass.
Firle Place, the stately home owned by the Gage family. Photo credit: Ginny Smith

On 29 December Lisa Nandy MP published on Twitter a letter she had written to Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. While she correctly quoted the Getting Building Fund as the source of the grant and asked some pertinent questions about the criteria used in the award of the money, a key phrase in the letter – “filling in potholes for a Conservative peer” – scorched through the Twitter-sphere. The story went viral on social media, with some surprising figures picking it up and reflecting the general sense of outrage.  

It is, of course, a very tempting stick to beat the government with; apparently yet another story about Tory sleaze and “money for mates” to add to those breaking over the autumn. And the public love a good “Tory duck-house” scandal. Bill Esterson, the MP for Sefton Central and one of Nandy’s colleagues, was understandably outraged.  “How does a Conservative peer get money to repair his driveway, but Crosby Town Centre doesn’t get a penny?” he demanded on Facebook.

Social media buzzed with fury. Steve Bray (the “shouty man” and face of Brexit resistance) posted on Facebook: “A third of a million spent ‘levelling up’ a Tory peer’s driveway.  Words fail me.” Jo Maugham of the Good Law Project wrote on his Twitter account: “I suppose filling in potholes on the driveway of a former Tory peer in one of the most fashionable areas of Sussex is levelling up in a literal sense.”  

Maugham was challenged by Andy Budd, a Brighton-based digital design expert, in a tweet that hit the nail on the head.  “I always find the framing of newspaper articles super interesting. I guess ‘taxpayers’ money used to improve access to local tourist attraction and arts charity’ is probably more accurate but wouldn’t have created half as much anger/clicks.”  

Budd’s tweet points to the real story, the one that concerns Charleston and the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP), the public–private partnership body responsible for awarding loans and grants from government levelling up schemes.  

A large detached country cottage, with foliage-clad walls, and just glimpsed, visitors eating to go inside.
Charleston House – the former home of the Bloomsbury artists, now preserved as a museum. Photo credit: Charleston House & Museum Trust

In 2018 the Trustees of Charleston House and Museum applied to SELEP for a loan of £120,000 from the Growing Places Fund to create a café–restaurant in the old threshing barn on site. The loan was part of a wider £7.6m multi-year scheme known as the Centenary Project intended to transform operations at Charleston. 

They also sought a grant of £89,293 from the Getting Building Fund in 2020 to deliver improvements to the access road, an application that was supported by the Firle Estate, who were apparently contributing some £10,000 of “services in kind”. Both applications were successful.

A deal was struck between Charleston and Firle over an access road

The single-track road (not driveway) in question runs from the main A27 road past Charleston and continues south to the base of the Downs, giving access to a farmhouse, several businesses and cottages owned by the Firle Estate. The stretch covered by the improvement grant amounts to the first half-mile and ends at the turning to Charleston.

According to an ex-employee of the Charleston Trust, an agreement was made between the Firle Estate and Charleston a few years ago that the upkeep costs of this northern stretch should be shared between them. It was subsequently patched and infilled a number of times, but poor drainage undermined the repairs.

A badly cracked and potholed road.
Poor state of the Charleston House access road …
The same road freshly repaired with tarmacked.
… and after the work was done. Photos: Ginny Smith

In their grant application the Charleston Trustees argued that “the poor quality of the access track discourages visitors from making repeat visits to Charleston and impacts on the ability of Charleston to grow their events and festivals programme.” The proposed work would provide additional drainage along the access track and widen and resurface the lane.

On 2 July 2021 the SELEP Accountability Board approved a further amount of £240,542 from the Getting Building Fund for the complete resurfacing of the access road and for a new cycle track. This seems to have been the sum that first caught the attention of the media.

Further research might have led to the real questions that needed to be asked.

First, about Charleston.  The museum is a registered charity, dependent on ticket sales and receipts from its shop and café for its income, and after successfully raising funds for a £9.7m business expansion completed in 2018 it had “no reserves and no endowment” to draw on when the pandemic hit.  A crowdfunding appeal saved the day, but the museum was very close to permanent closure. 

Questions for the Tory-controlled board that dished out the funds

How many questions did the SELEP Accountability Board ask about the long-term financial stability of the organisation before the award of funds?  And was there a proper review of claims that visitor numbers to the museum would drop if the access road was not entirely resurfaced?  In fact, visitor numbers doubled to 54,000 in 2019.

Second, about the SELEP Accountability Board. Is it acceptable that six of the seven local authority councillors on the board are Conservatives? However scrupulous they might be in weighing up competing applications, that skewed representation is bound to lead to suspicions of bias.  

Finally, there is a valid debate to be had about whether money from the Getting Building Fund should have been awarded to a small museum that, as one critic put it, “attracts a largely middle-class and prosperous visitor who can afford to pay more towards its upkeep”.  

All who value Charleston’s unique character would agree that the house and gallery should be supported so that it can flourish – but whether that support should have come from a fund designed to “target areas facing the biggest economic challenges as a result of the pandemic” is another question.  Perhaps one that the Daily Mail and Lisa Nandy MP should have been asking.

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