The spending of an unelected body charged with improving the economy of Sussex has come under the spotlight after The Argus revealed its lavish expenses and hospitality culture.

Some MPs are calling for the South East England Development Agency (Seeda) to be scrapped and replaced by a more transparent authority. Lawrence Marzouk sees if Seeda's millions are providing value for money?

  • For 35 years a prime area of Shoreham lay derelict.

But in 2000 a newly formed public body bought the land which had become an eyesore and earmarked it for a £20 million redevelopment programme.

The South East England Development Agency ploughed millions of pounds into the site and, along with a private developer, has brought life back to this part of the River Adur.

Ropetackle, in Harbour Way, has seen a flurry of businesses move into the hitech business centre since it opened.

Councillor Neil Parkin, leader of Adur District Council, said in principle he was against quangos like Seeda but it had unlocked a lucrative piece of land which had remained unused for too long.

He said: "It has had a tremendous impact on Shoreham which is now the place to be.

"There were so many problems with the site and we did not have the money to deal with the pollution and other problems.

"It couldn't have gone ahead without them."

Seeda receives almost £200 million a year from the Department for Trade and Industry and has invested millions of pounds in projects in Bexhill, Shoreham, Hastings, Brighton and Newhaven. But allegations of waste have emerged after The Argus uncovered a culture of business-class travel, luxurious lunches and ostensibly unlimited taxi bills. The investigation revealed: A taxi bill of £55,000 for chairman James Brathwaite and chief executive Pam Alexander last year Almost £100,000 over three years to pay for the chairman's personal secretary while his predecessor used in-house staff Almost £120,000 on an exclusive awards ceremony in Brighton.

The investigation also discovered almost £1 million earmarked for budding businesses was invested in companies linked to Mr Brathwaite.

He is a director of two companies which received £850,000 from the South East Growth Fund (SEGF), an independent organisation that is supported and sponsored by Seeda which has a member on its advisory committee.

Another company in which he is a major shareholder was handed £75,000 in a direct grant from Seeda.

No allegations of wrongdoing have been made and Seeda and SEGF have said that Mr Brathwaite's position played no role in the decisions.

But MPs have questioned the use of resources and possible conflicts of interests.

Lewes MP Norman Baker believes Seeda should be replaced by a body which is accountable to the public.

He said: "They may produce lots of glossy brochures about the Chilterns but it doesn't really cut much ice with the people in my constituency.

"MPs and councils are much more careful because they are accountable to the electorate.

"Unelected bodies are not showing the same degree of care.

"I do not see the need for a development agency and if there is one it should be run by county councils which are democratically elected."

Tim Loughton, Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, praised the work of Seeda in Ropetackle but said the bureaucracy surrounding it was extremely costly to the taxpayer.

He said: "Single Regeneration Budgets which were discontinued by the Government after 1997 were given to local authorities who were able to have a big impact on a small scale without these big salaries and people running up large taxi bills.

"The South East is not a coherent region running from Dover to Milton Keynes - people do not feel part of the South East."

He added that the Government Office for the South East could work alongside county councils and local authorities to do the same job.

But Sue John, a councillor on Brighton and Hove City Council and a Seeda board member, defended the body's work.

She said that funds had been invested in the longdelayed Preston Barracks redevelopment and the regeneration of the city's seafront and said millions of pounds will help build a new Brighton Centre.

She said: "They have staff who I am full of admiration for.

"They are making sure we are getting companies from China investing in the South East and they give good value for money."

Councillor Jeremy Birch, the former leader of Hastings Borough Council, said Seeda had been key to providing investment for the town.

The public body helped set up a taskforce which has invested millions of pounds in dozens of projects including University College Hastings which is run by Brighton University.

He said: "The Government recognised the particular needs of Hastings but Seeda has helped us to create the stepping stones to regenerate Hastings."

A Seeda spokesman said the South Coast was a priority.

He said: "Seeda is heavily involved in funding or cofunding a wide variety of regeneration projects in Brighton and Hove and neighbouring local authority areas, including Adur and Lewes.

"For example, Seeda is leading the development of the Newhaven Business Centre at Denton Island, a £4 million project on which we are working in partnership with Lewes District Council and Basepoint plc.

"A recent House of Commons select committee report recognised the importance of regional development agencies such as Seeda in the environmental, social and economic regeneration of coastal towns."

Despite The Department for Trade and Industry's role overseeing regional development agencies, it refused to comment on Seeda's expenditure.

Do you think Seeda should be replaced with a body that is accountable to the public? Have your say, add your comments below.