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RURAL SERVICES - A COUNTRYSIDE IN CRISIS

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Services cost much more to provide in rural areas - a point acknowledged by the government. So why, ask Steve Pugsl...
Services cost much more to provide in rural areas - a point acknowledged by the government. So why, ask Steve Pugsley, chairman of the Rural Services Parntership, is it so reluctant to address the inequalities inherent in the grant distribution system.

It should have come as no surprise that an urban dominated Commons committee baulked at the idea of putting more resources into rural communities. Stoke-on-Trent South, Leeds Central, Billericay, Liverpool Riverside, Crewe & Nantwich, Reigate, Nuneaton.

Places that conjure up vision of rural Britain? Probably not. But these are some of the constituencies of the members of the environment select committee.

Its recent report on the government's forthcoming rural white paper was a wide-ranging affair, but it revealed one of the fundamental weaknesses in the present debate on the crisis in the countryside.

How can the urban-dominated political elite be persuaded to face up to the extra costs involved in providing services to rural communities?

The committee acknowledges: 'Many of the memoranda of written evidence reiterated the arguments . . . that the standard spending assessment discriminated unfairly against rural areas in failing to take account of the higher costs of service provision which they encounter.'

It goes on: 'However, we do not consider it is realistic to aim to provide the same density of services in urban and rural areas. One consequence is that the funding of rural areas should be needs-related, rather than linked to crude measures of sparsity.'

And here's the rub: 'Most importantly, given the severe problems faced by inner city areas, we could not, in general, support a switch in resources from urban local authorities to rural ones.' Of course not.

Two points. First, it is clear there will never be the same frequency of buses running down our country lanes as there are down Oxford Street. That is not what is being sought by the rural communities.

Second, there is nothing crude about sparsity. It is a fact that sparsely populated areas face higher costs providing services.

Our case to government in this area was accepted in the 1999-2000 settlement, albeit only for the domiciliary care element of the personal social services spending block. But it was an important point of principle won.

Rural needs are all about sparsity. If remoteness deprives you of a service, because you cannot reach it or it cannot reach you, you are suffering a form of deprivation, a real need hitherto unacknowledged.

Some thinking for the white paper appeared earlier in the month from Labour's rural group of MPs, which produced its Manifesto for rural Britain. It was surprisingly candid about the situation in the countryside.

'Remoteness conceals needs, hampers solutions and too often leads to debilitating isolation,' group chairman Peter Bradley says in the foreword. And he gives a ringing endorsement of our case on sparsity. 'Sparsity of population makes it more expensive - sometimes prohibitively - to deliver public services. Lack of public transport denies access to the opportunities, goods and services many in the towns take for granted.'

Hearteningly, the group's manifesto goes on to call for greater recognition of the importance of sparsity as a factor in calculating standard spending assessments, welcome support for the Rural Service Partnership's long-standing case in this vital area. The partnership is the cross-party coalition of the most sparsely populated councils - a mix of districts, counties and unitaries.

We have always pressed the case for the grant system to recognise the extra cost burdens rural councils face in providing services vital to maintaining the fabric of rural community life. We have just published our own report, Fair finance for country communities.

Produced for us by leading local government finance consultant Rita Hale, it argues grants paid by the government to support local services in rural areas should reflect the fact that it costs far more to provide schools, social care, leisure and other local amenities to country communities.

Bid-based funding is contrary to the principles of local democracy and is a charter for croneyism. It will favour big urban authorities with time and money to expend on glossy campaigns, and will bog down ministers in endless meetings with local representatives wishing to make their case.

It will encourage councils to stack up their budgets as a safeguard against their bids being knocked back.

It will embroil ministers in a multitude of politically sensitive decisions about the fate of individual services in individual councils, and will expose them to legal challenge over the basis upon which their decisions have been made in each circumstance.

In other words it is anti-democratic, unfair, politically ill-judged, inflationary, and a legal minefield.

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