Rural areas 'still starved of cash'

SUFFOLK misses out on vital funding and is repeatedly starved of cash in favour of its urban counterparts because the Government continues to neglect rural areas, community leaders have claimed.

SUFFOLK misses out on vital funding and is repeatedly starved of cash in favour of its urban counterparts because the Government continues to neglect rural areas, community leaders have claimed.

The criticism was made following a report by countryside watchdog the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) on rural proofing - a Whitehall promise to ensure all domestic policies take account of rural circumstances and needs.

The Commission said while there was evidence of a positive impact in some policy areas - such as postal services, emergency services response times and public transport - there were still signs the Government did not recognise the real problems of a rural population.

It said it was particularly concerned with the poor level of funding which is allocated to local authorities to cover specific costs and difficulties of service delivery in rural areas.

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The fears have struck a chord in Suffolk, especially in light of the county's 2006/07 council tax settlement which will see a rise in Whitehall funding of just 2.9% compared to this year - prompting fears much needed services could face the axe if spending is to be kept within budget.

Jeremy Pembroke, leader of Suffolk County Council said: “The report by the Commission does not surprise me. There is no doubt local authorities in East Anglia and throughout the south see Government grants taken away by the Labour heartlands of the north.

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“Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent announcement on the council tax settlement which has seen Suffolk once again miss out on vital funding. Rural areas are being neglected at the expense of their urban counterparts to which the Government give preference.”

Meanwhile Dr Wil Gibson, chief executive of rural campaign group, Suffolk ACRE, said even the targets which were deemed to be more successful within the CRC's report could be misleading.

He said: “The trouble is that even some of the more successful targets have a lack of ambition. Rural transport provision is still not adequate and access to doctors is often very difficult. The indicators for success are not necessarily high enough in the first place and more needs to be done to push these up so we begin to see real change.

“The biggest problem in terms of rural services however is that a lot of Government policy is developed in urban areas and then rolled out to the countryside and expected to work in the same way. We must ensure we have policies which are more sensitive to the needs of rural areas that will then allow us to look at more inventive and flexible models of delivery to find different solutions.”

Dr Stuart Burgess, the rural advocate and chairman of the Countryside Agency, said the group had recently submitted evidence to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in a bid to try and get improved resource allocation for rural areas in the future.

“The current formula does not take sufficient account of the extra cost of providing services in rural areas due to the lack of economies of scale and the extra time and distance inherent in delivering services to rural people,” he said.

However when announcing the 2006/07 council tax settlement earlier this month local government minister Phil Woolas said the level of funding was a real terms increase in investment in local government which would allow authorities to continue to deliver effective services without an excessive rise in council tax.

He said: “This is another good settlement for local government and reflects the work we have this year undertaken jointly with the Local Government Association to look at the pressures councils face in the next two years, and the ways central and local government can manage those pressures. By the end of this spending review we will have delivered an above inflation grant increase to local government for the tenth successive year.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, welcomed the CRC's report and said they endorsed the suggestions that were made regarding the future direction of rural proofing.

She continued: “We share the CRC's view on the crucial importance of robust and reliable evidence, which both clearly identifies the needs of people in rural England and shows how rural proofing can make a real difference to their lives.”

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