Dowden defends cost of room for scrapped White House-style press briefings

Downing Street press briefing room
Downing Street press briefing room (PA Wire)
9:35am, Wed 21 Apr 2021
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The Government insists that it was not a waste of taxpayers’ money to spend £2.6 million on a room for White House-style televised press conferences after abandoning the plan for the regular briefings.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the room in No 9 Downing Street will now be used to host ministerial press conferences.

Mr Dowden said the modern facility would also be available for future governments in years to come and was “similar” to what is available in other countries.

Allegra Stratton (PA Archive)

Former journalist Allegra Stratton had been brought in as Mr Johnson’s press secretary to be the face of Downing Street at the planned regular briefings, which were due to have started last year but were postponed due to coronavirus.

Ms Stratton, who is paid a salary of around £125,000 a year, will now lead communications for the Cop26 environment summit, which is due to take place in Glasgow in November.

Mr Dowden told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday: “This was just about building a modern press facility.

“It won’t just be used by this Government, it will be used by future governments, it’s very similar to what many governments around the world have.

“So it’s not wasted money in that sense, it is just a normal press facility for Government.”

The room has been used for recent coronavirus press conferences, replacing the state dining room in No 10 as the backdrop for announcements.

Coronavirus – Mon Apr 5, 2021 (PA Wire)

But it was originally intended to host the daily briefings led by Ms Stratton.

The plans for the TV press briefings were devised by the former No 10 head of communications, Lee Cain, who quit last November alongside his ally Dominic Cummings after a power struggle in which Ms Stratton is thought to have played a significant role.

The PA news agency revealed last month that the media room had cost £2.6 million to install, with the hi-tech refurbishment branded a “vanity project” by Labour.

The room saw its first use in March when the Prime Minister addressed the nation about the next stage of lockdown easing.

Oliver Dowden (PA Wire)

Responding to the plans being scrapped, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Boris Johnson is clearly running scared of scrutiny and questions about Tory sleaze and dodgy lobbying.

“Instead of wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a pointless vanity project, the Prime Minister should have used the money to give our NHS heroes a pay rise.”

A freedom of information (FoI) request by PA revealed that the overhaul of No 9 had cost £2,607,767.67, largely excluding VAT.

Costs detailed in the FoI response included £1,848,695.12 for the “main works”, £198,023.75 on “long lead items”, and £33,394.63 on broadband equipment.

The launch of the televised briefings had been anticipated as early as the autumn, but in January No 10 said they were being delayed as ministers planned to hold regular press conferences during the lockdown.

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