Mary Portas show

Mark Prisk launched an inquiry to find out how Portas Pilot money was being spent

The government panicked over the lack of progress made by the Portas Pilots and questioned why they were spending the £2.4m of taxpayers’ cash so slowly, new documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal.

Former local government minister Mark Prisk launched an internal inquiry to find out what the towns were doing and threatened a moratorium on any further spending, the documents show.

In February, the Department for Communities and Local Government vehemently denied a story in The Grocer that it had postponed a progress review on the Pilots amid concern over the lack of corporate governance.

However, the new documents show Prisk was privately worried the government had been left “vulnerable” to criticism over the lack of progress by the 29 official Pilots and 370 town teams.

“He would like to know what information we have about how this money is spent,” said an email between Prisk’s office and department staff. “He also said no further spending should proceed without a requirement for a record of what is spent and a clear line that if the initial money is not spent, without good reasons, then there will be no more.”

Yet just a week later, a DCLG spokeswoman insisted it had not been a lack of accountability that had caused the delay in a report on the Pilots.

“The government has given the Portas Pilots a share of £2.4m to spend as and when they see fit to best improve their high streets,” she said. “Pilots up and down the country are already doing this very successfully.”

Previously, Prisk had denied that the government had been encouraging the schemes to speed up their spending, despite The Grocer revealing in July that the DCLG had privately issued new guidance ordering towns to report how much of the money they had spent and warning it would be more closely monitored.

“This is yet more evidence of how the DCLG has made a right mess of its handling,” said a high street source.