|Charity relieving Distress by Thomas Gainsborough, can be viewed in Gainsborough's House, Sudbury. Community action is however only part of the solution in rural areas..|
Is Westminster finally catching up with the fact that rural communities are short changed when it comes to government funding?
Last week we read that the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee had issued a report which points up the inherent unfairness of the way that central government calculates the funding of rural areas. It costs more to deliver services in remote regions and yet per capita funding for rural local authorities is less than half that received in urban areas.
The Chairman of the Committee, Conservative MP, Ann McIntosh said:-
“The Government needs to recognise that the current system of calculating the local government finance settlement is deeply unfair to rural areas in comparison with their urban counterparts. This is unacceptable.
“Rural communities pay more in council tax, receive less government grant and have access to fewer public services than people in large towns and cities.
“Defra must work with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that future settlements recognise the premium that exists in the provision of services to rural areas.”
The report’s message will come as no surprise to policy makers. Rural local authorities have been raising this issue with Eric Pickles for some time now, but perhaps because of the inherently urban focus of most of the cabinet, and perhaps also due to an element of complacency about the persistence of the Conservative vote in the shires, their voices, as far as I can see, have been largely ignored. The full report can be downloaded or read here.
While they are considering the Committee’s findings I think the Government would also do well to take a look at the evidence that supports Age UK’s recently launched campaign ‘to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities faced by older people living in rural communities in England’. Transport, health and social care, fuel poverty, broadband access, poverty and social exclusion and loneliness and social isolation are all highlighted as being real issues for many. A link to the campaign web page can be found here.
For Suffolk these issues are of particular importance due to the fact that our population has a higher age profile than the UK average and this will not change in the future. We must find a way forward if we want to maintain some sort of balance in our communities, keep them alive, and prevent them from becoming the preserve of the comparatively wealthy, second home owners and tourists.
The Chief Executive of Age UK Suffolk, Martyn Green, came to talk to councillors recently at Endeavour House. Unsurprisingly his message echoed that of the Age UK campaign. The way forward lies in a combination of community and government action. Neither player can resolve the problem without the support of the other.
However, if the government does not shoulder its share of the burden by treating non-urban areas more fairly the future for the rural vulnerable is bleak. Ministers should follow the advice of the Select Committee.