GREG Clark has written to the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) over its use of government funding earmarked for ‘levelling-up’ rural areas.
The Council has been allocated £443,604 to be spread over the next two years from the Rural England Prosperity Fund (REPF).
The fund, which is part of the government’s levelling-up agenda, is meant to be earmarked to provide support for rural businesses.
But it has emerged that a quarter of the fund (£110,901) from the first tranche of payments sent to TWBC is set to be diverted to the Council itself, so it can pay for its own cost overruns at the Weald Sports Centre in Cranbrook.
The leisure centre is undergoing ‘decarbonisation’ to reduce its environmental impact with the installation of solar panels, air source heat pumps, LED lights and an energy management system.
Separate government grant funding of £1.1million has already been allocated to this project, but higher than expected charges from UK Power Networks have led to a cost overrun of more than £330,000.
To help pay for the shortfall, the Council has committed to taking extra money from its capital budget, as well as an interest-free government loan provided by public sector finance organisation Salix.
But to help bridge the gap, TWBC also committed to investing the first tranche from the Rural England Prosperity Fund into the project.
Greg Clark says the fund was not aimed at bailing out Councils and should not have been used to shore up overspend for the Weald Sports Centre. Mr Clark wrote to the Council to ask why it was spent on an existing project.
The Tunbridge Wells MP, who temporarily replaced Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities earlier this year, told the Times: “The purpose of the Rural England Prosperity Fund is first and foremost to provide support for rural businesses like pubs and small shops.
“My concern with the Council’s proposal is that the entirety of the first year’s allocation of funds is being diverted to the Council itself – to make the council-owned Weald Sports Centre more energy efficient.
“As laudable as this project is, I do not think the council should be diverting money provided by the Government to help small rural businesses to its own projects,” Mr Clark continued.
“Small businesses in the countryside are facing extremely tough trading conditions and, for some of them, this Government provided help could be the difference between survival or going to the wall.”
However, Cabinet member at TWBC, Justine Rutland defended the move.
She told the Times: “The REPF application requires engagement with our local MPs. Therefore, after hearing the concerns raised by Mr Clark, along with those of the Cabinet Advisory Board, Cabinet examined the proposal again.
“Having done so, Cabinet members believe that this allocation is entirely appropriate and fits the criteria.”
She continued: “The Weald Leisure Centre is a vital community amenity, providing services for local people and businesses. This REPF funding will help safeguard its future in challenging financial times.”
She added: “Councillor Nancy Warne and I, as Cabinet members responsible for the REPF bid, have written to Mr Clark to explain our position.”