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Pressure grows on rural funding

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: January 10, 2014

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Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs have continued to pile pressure on the Government over rural communities being short-changed.

The Rural Fair Share campaign, being led by ministers from the shires, has argued urban councils receive 50% more funding per head than rural authorities.

But their push for a semblance of parity only resulted in councils classed as being in sparse areas this year sharing a one-off £9.5 million grant – with one MP last night claiming one authority will get as little as £650.

Some remain angry at the rebuttal, with the prospect of the most disillusioned voting against the Government’s Finance Bill, which would represent a significant rebellion.

Speaking during a House of Commons debate on rural communities, Stephen Gilbert, Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay, said the Government should “push ahead with this idea of getting a fair share for rural areas”.

He said: “In Cornwall, the reality is that we have higher-than-average council tax, lower-than-average earnings and less money spent per head in the rural areas than in the urban areas.

“Closing that gap by just 10% a year for the next five years would mean an additional £16 million of income for people in Cornwall.”

MPs in the countryside are arguing for reform in recognition of the fact that rural authorities are under-funded and incur extra costs in providing services.

Anne McIntosh, Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton in Yorkshire, and chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, said “rural communities pay higher council tax bills per dwelling yet receive less Government grant and have access to fewer public services than their urban counterparts”.

She added the Government had in part recognised its “misjudgment” by sanctioning the one-year grant, but said: “Some payments are as small as £650.”

The MP went on: “As welcome as any extra funding is, that is clearly not the long-term solution to the problem of rural councils not getting their fair share. Regrettably, the Government rejected our call for the gap in funding between rural and urban councils to be reduced. We must and we will continue to press the case.”

The debate also warned of the chronic shortage of affordable rural housing, the slow roll-out of vital high-speed broadband and the damaging impact of the “bedroom tax” beyond towns and cities.

Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, warned over off-grid energy supply in rural areas, where there is not enough competition between oil companies to deliver heating oil.

“Many constituents of ours will probably never get on to mains gas, but heating oil is an alternative,” he said. “We have to get more competition and get the prices down for people in rural areas who use oil for their heating.”

Ex-rural affairs minister David Heath, Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome, warned without 100% accessibility for high-speed broadband “we will do an immense disservice to people in very rural areas”.

The MP said homes and businesses expected to miss out should be given funding available to ensure such accessibility.

He said: “We want not a bidding system or matched funding, which is not available in rural areas, but the Government to finish the job.”

Margaret Thatcher’s former private secretary, Sir Edward Leigh, MP for Gainsborough, criticised the so-called chattering classes for depicting rural life as idyllic.

He said: “I think there’s altogether too rosy a picture of rural life, particularly in metropolitan circles. Some people who write our national newspapers seem to think that we all live in Cotswold villages, in lovely stone houses inhabited by media moguls having country lunches, or retired admirals.”

In response to the debate, rural affairs minister and Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson – who as a backbencher supported the Rural Fair Share campaign, conceded: “We need to change the approach towards assessing the longer-term funding needs of rural local authorities.”

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