Rural areas 'paying more for less'

PEOPLE in rural East Anglia are paying more council tax than their urban counterparts and receiving worse public services, a new report claims.It has sparked demands for the Government to "correct an injustice" in the way it funds local authorities to take into account the extra cost of providing services in the countryside.

PEOPLE in rural East Anglia are paying more council tax than their urban counterparts and receiving worse public services, a new report claims.

It has sparked demands for the Government to "correct an injustice" in the way it funds local authorities to take into account the extra cost of providing services in the countryside.

The call came from SPARSE, a coalition of more than 50 of England's most rural local authorities including Babergh District Council, Suffolk Coastal District Council, Maldon District Council and Uttlesford District Council, in its new rural manifesto.

Graham Biggs, chief officer for the lobby group, said new thinking is needed to help address the needs of rural communities if they are to avoid becoming depopulated or mere dormitories.


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He added: "As things stand, the way Government grant is handed out to councils fails to reflect the obvious extra cost of providing services to rural communities.

"Worse, it is evident that research in this area continues to be ignored. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was briefed last month on fresh evidence that the unit cost of providing public services in the countryside is double that in urban areas."

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Lord Hanningfield, leader of Essex County Council, said it was important the decline in rural life was halted.

He said: "I totally agree with what is being said, there is a lack of post offices and facilities in rural areas and people have to pay for school buses if they live in rural communities.

"There has been a lack of opportunities in the rural communities since the decline of farming as there used to be a lot more activity taking place when farming was in its heyday.

"There is not much point in having the countryside just simply to look at, and it is not just more grants that are needed, but it is a case of encouraging work and prosperity."

John Smith, chairman of the finance committee at Maldon District Council, said: "We are one of the many areas to suffer from having a sparse population and we really would like the Government to reflect some form of sparsity ratio in the grants.

"Figures suggest, on average, that rural areas are getting 2-5% under what they should be and there has been no change to reflect the last census results.

"It all seems to be slanted against rural areas which, it has to be said, tend to be Conservative."

Mr Smith added the shortage caused problems across the board from transport to education.

Jeremy Pembroke, leader of Suffolk County Council, said that, because of the way the funding formula is worked, shire counties are now getting a worse deal.

He added: "The Government has got to readdress that problem. Until they do, rural England may well be faced with a choice, unless central Government is sympathetic towards their difficulties, of raising taxes or being forced to reduce services."

Mr Pembroke said people in rural villages across the country were questioning what they were getting in return for their council tax.

They see a policeman from time to time, holes appearing in minor roads and social services concentrated in urban areas, while they have a public transport system that is not viable to their needs, and libraries they cannot use as they are too far away, he said.

Ray Herring, leader of Suffolk Coastal District Council, added: "Approximately 50% of our net expenditure comes in the form of a Government grant and 50% from council taxpayers.

"We are very anxious to ensure that Government puts in place a much fairer local authority funding system, which takes into account some of the difficulties and additional costs of delivering services in rural areas."

SPARSE's second rural manifesto sets out the cross-party lobby group's position on a range of issues challenging communities in the countryside.

It also covers:

n Rural housing and local taxes, calling for more affordable housing and an end to the right-to-buy scheme in areas where there is pressure on social housing.

n Supporting key workers in the countryside so the particular needs of public service workers in rural areas are addressed.

n Rural deprivation and poverty.

n Waste management in the countryside, calling for the next spending review to look at the particular costs and issues associated with waste management in the countryside.

n Healthcare in a rural setting, which it claims is being "neglected".

But a spokesperson for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said last night: "Firstly, council tax is set by local authorities, not by the Government. There is no excuse for excessive council tax increases in any area. The Government has shown it will act to limit council tax rises.

"This year, every council received a grant increase in line with, or above inflation - in all, local government funding has risen by 33% since 1997.

"The grant distribution formula is specifically designed to calculate grant according to relative circumstances, or relative need, both in rural and urban areas. Sparsity is one factor which is taken into account in determining grant levels."

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