The Rural Services Partnership, a campaigning group that represents more than 60 of the most sparsely populated councils in England, fears proposals for plan-based funding will appear in the local government finance green paper.
The partnership believes such proposals could breach the anti-discrimination
Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the legal framework introduced by the Act.
A legal opinion from human rights law expert Rabinder Singh says: 'It could be argued . . . that differences in treatment as between people who live in an urban area and those who live in a sparsely populated area are discriminatory on the grounds of where they happen to live.' Mr Singh is a barrister at Matrix, the human rights Chambers whose partners include Cherie Booth.
The partnership plans to send the opinion to deputy prime minister John Prescott, local government minister Hilary Armstrong and environment minister Michael Meacher on Monday. The green paper could appear on Tuesday, but the DETR said a date had not yet been finalised. If the paper is not released next week, it could be delayed until after the Labour Party conference.
Plan-based funding was mooted in the DETR review of RSG in March as a means to reform the revenue support grant.
The Local Government Association opposes the move. Finance policy officer Mike Heiser said: 'It would lead to ministers becoming involved with local matters, such as decisions on council tax levels, which should be decided by councils.'
But the LGA is expecting plan-based funding to be mentioned in the paper, though it is not sure what form the proposals might take. The DETR would say only: 'There will be some options for change set out.'
The partnership's challenge is likely to increase fears of a rash of cases hitting the courts when the Human Rights Act is introduced next month. Clwyd West MP Gareth Thomas warned delegates at last week's Welsh Local Government Association conference that their councils were poorly prepared for the new legislation.
'The act will be misused in the beginning. We are in for a very big period in the civil courts in Wales,' Mr Thomas said.
LGA chief legal adviser Alison Sutherland told the conference: 'There will be a heightened public awareness. Local authorities need to be in a position to respond and not shrink away from human rights.'
- The LGC Treasury Management Seminar in Blackpool on 21 September will discuss the implications of the local government finance green paper. Tel: 0207 874 0646.