THE former cabinet secretary in charge of planning took thousands of pounds from a family business linked to fracking for his re-election campaign, it has emerged.

Alex Neil accepted almost £3000 in donations from the family behind a leading drilling company that stands to benefit if the SNP allows fracking in Scotland.

The cash accounted for a quarter of Neil’s election spending in his Airdrie & Shotts seat.

The money came from Bobby Hill and his family, who are behind Hydracrat Ltd, a Motherwell-based firm which specialises in “test drilling and boring”.

It has said it hopes to drill the boreholes needed to check the safety of groundwater around any future fracking operations.

The SNP put the controversial gas extraction technology on hold last year with a moratorium, but a critical study on its viability and safety is due out this summer.

According to official election records, Hydracrat Ltd donated £490 to Neil on March 21, and five members of the Hill family then gave a further £2420 between them by March 25.

Bobby Hill, 54, the company’s director and sole shareholder, gave £485; his 80-year-old mother Jean gave £495; his wife Linda, 52, gave £470; and his sons Robert, 24, and Ross, 21, gave £490 and £480 respectively.

The threshold for reporting a donation to the Electoral Commission is £500.

Although Hydracrat is based in Uddingston & Bellshill, the Hills are Neil’s constituents.

Neil took the cash while Cabinet Secretary for Communities, which gave him responsibility for planning, despite controversy over previous Hydracrat donations because of its fracking links.

In November, it emerged SNP candidate Neil Gray, now the Airdrie & Shotts MP, took £3750 from the firm in 2015, despite taking a public stance against fracking.

Hydracrat also donated £17,500 to the SNP in 2010, and Bobby Hill gave £6500 to the Airdrie & Shotts constituency branch in 2011, though not to Neil directly.

Neil’s department was also considering a planning appeal involving Bobby Hill in March, when the latest donations were made.

Hill had applied in July 2015 for permission in principle for up to 150 houses on a former coal bing near Newmains.

After North Lanarkshire Council rejected the application in December, Hill appealed to the Scottish Government’s planning and environmental appeals division.

But in late February, Neil’s department took the final decision away from the planning reporter on the case and put it in the hands of ministers instead.

The justification was that the application was “over 100 housing units in size”, even though it had been scaled back to 92 units.

Neil officially "stepped down" from the cabinet last month, despite telling friends the weekend before Nicola Sturgeon’s post-election reshuffle that he expected to stay in post.

Bobby Hill denied fracking or planning were factors in the donations.

He said: “We donated to our local guy. Is there anything wrong with donating to your local candidate? Whether he’s the First Minister or just an MSP, he’s the local candidate.

“It could have been somebody else, but it was Alex Neil. It’s just a donation.”

Asked why five members of one family all decided to give just under the £500 reporting threshold within four days of each other, Hill said: “That’s the donations that were made. Each party made their own donation. End of story. We believe in independence.”

Central Scotland Labour MSP Richard Leonard, who stood against Neil, said: “Alex Neil has some explaining to do. People in Scotland need to know that government ministers are making decisions based on the evidence, not on who is funding their political campaigns. The SNP Government should publish all documentation in relation to this case so people can see what is going on here."

Green MSP Mark Ruskell MSP added: “People will rightly wonder why an SNP planning Minister was happy to accept donations associated with a firm that stands to benefit from fracking. I suspect many of his constituents and party members will be deeply disappointed at how this looks.”

An SNP spokeswoman said: “Alex Neil instructed government officials months ago that any application from any donor to his campaign would have to be decided upon by another minister to avoid any conflict of interest, or suspicion of any conflict of interest. The insinuation here is a red herring."