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Barry Lewis: Fair funding must recognise rural challenges

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At the start of March, Stephen Houghton (Lab), leader of Barnsley LBC, argued the government’s proposed new funding formula is unfair because it would systematically disadvantage residents in urban areas.

As the leader of a largely rural county council, I fundamentally disagree.

It can be all too easy to characterise rural villages as bright, bucolic havens inhabited by the privileged middle classes, while big towns and cities are dark places of poverty and deprivation. But in Derbyshire, in common with many other largely rural counties, the reality is not black and white. Some of our most disadvantaged communities nestle in the rolling Peak District hills.

One such place, Gamesley, was built in the 1960s as an overspill estate to house families from nearby Manchester. Set in an idyllic landscape on the Trans Pennine Trail, the breath-taking views from every street mask the reality that this is among the most deprived places in England.

It’s also a village full of hope, character and spirit – a place where we’ve done some of our most innovative work alongside the community, despite the funding challenges. But the fact is that the current government funding formula doesn’t fairly account for the cost of providing public services in these places.

Across Derbyshire many of our small towns and villages face the same challenges as the larger towns and cities: ageing populations, anti-social behaviour, alcohol and drug dependency, and mental health issues. And our rural areas frequently face additional barriers caused by a lack of transport, fewer employment opportunities and the social effects of isolation.

It’s because of communities like Gamesley and many others in Derbyshire that we welcome the government’s proposal to include an adjustment for significantly urban and significantly rural areas. The current formula does not sufficiently account for the cost of providing services – both targeted and universal – across a county like ours stretching 70 miles from north to south with 4,000 miles of roads.

It simply costs more to deliver services in rural areas.

Analysis by the Rural Services Network shows under the current funding regime urban areas receive some £123 a head more funding than their rural counterparts, and rural residents pay on average £91 a head more in council tax than their urban counterparts, due to receiving less government grant.

Rural residents pay more, receive fewer services, and on average earn less than those in urban areas. Yet they often have the same, or sometimes greater, need for public services. Isn’t that the definition of a postcode lottery?

The current formula also does not account for the limited ability of rural areas to raise income from car parking – Westminster brings in £76m compared to Derbyshire’s £1m – or for the added expense of delivering social care to vulnerable people over a wide or remote area.

In his piece Mr Houghton quotes Scottish philosopher David Hume: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” As a scholarly stance it clearly has merit, but in the case of Derbyshire the facts lead us to different conclusions than those of our Barnsley neighbour.

All the evidence shows that residents in rural areas do more than their fair share by paying higher than average council tax and contributing to the national budget through their income tax. And yet they receive fewer services in return.

That’s why we support the government’s proposals to give our rural communities, at long last, their fair share of the public purse.

Barry Lewis (Con), leader, Derbyshire CC

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