Ex-Minister says Lib Dems blocked cash to rural areas

Bob Neill
Bob Neill
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A Coalition row has erupted over Government funding for rural areas after an ex-Tory Minister accused senior Lib Dems of blocking his efforts to increase support for the countryside.

Bob Neill, the former Local Government Minister, said he attempted to change controversial Whitehall funding formulas to provide more money for under-funded rural areas before he was sacked from his post in 2012.

But Mr Neill, a Conservative, claimed the plan was blocked by Liberal Democrats in the coalition who “had no desire” to divert extra funds to the countryside .

Angry Lib Dems hit back last night, defending their record in Government and accusing Mr Neill of “trying to rewrite history”.

The issue is hugely emotive in Yorkshire, with councils such as East Riding and North Yorkshire axeing rural bus routes and mobile libraries owing to the massive cuts to their budgets since 2010.

Campaigners say the cuts put extra pressure on rural councils which were already underfunded, receiving far smaller grants than their urban counterparts due to Whitehall funding formulas which favour built-up areas.

Mr Neill, who held the local government brief for more than two years, admitted it was “offensive” that the Government “does not adequately take on board the cost of running services in rural areas”.

He said: “When I sought to reform the system by giving more recognition to rurality... I was baulked at every turn by our coalition partners, who had no desire to make any change.

“I was surprised my coalition colleagues were more concerned with protecting metropolitan authorities. Sheffield and Stockport were more important to them.

“The reality is they were unwilling to engage in a serious debate.”

The reference to Sheffield appears to be a thinly-veiled attack on Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, the MP for Sheffield Hallam,

A senior Lib Dem source highlighted a raft of pro-countryside measures undertaken by the coalition, including top-up payments of around £100,000 to the most rural councils and the £800m investment in rural broadband.

The source said: “Bob Neill is trying to rewrite history. Both sides of the coalition have worked tirelessly to ensure rural communities are not disproportionately affected by the savings all areas of Government are having to make.

“Rather than finger pointing and cheap political point-scoring, Bob Neill should be focusing on making sure all rural areas know of the help available.”