MPs have blasted the government’s proposed funding settlement for rural areas, describing it as unfair and inadequate.
The issue of government funding for rural areas was the subject of a House of Commons debate on Monday (11 January).
The debate was secured by Graham Stuart, MP for Beverley and Holderness, who is also chairman of the parliamentary Rural Fair Share Campaign.
Urban residents received 45% more in central government grant than their rural counterparts – despite paying £81 less in council tax per head, Mr Stuart told MPs.
The government’s own figures showed that urban residents enjoyed higher earnings than their rural counterparts, yet people in significantly rural areas were the very poorest paid, he added.
Mr Stuart asked: “How can it be fair for poorer rural residents to pay higher council taxes than their richer urban cousins while receiving fewer services?”
The Rural Fair Share Campaign and the Rural Services Network are calling on the government to honour a commitment to ensure rural communities receive fairer funding for public services.
Together, the two bodies are calling for £130m promised by the Government to be allocated to individual rural local authorities and fire and rescue services.
The debate was held ahead of the government’s final funding settlement for local authorities, which is due to be confirmed by ministers in February.
Mr Stuart said: “For many years, rural councils have been underfunded by central government because of historic political choices and the formidable lobbying power of metropolitan authorities.”
The government has agreed to quadruple the rural services grant for local authorities delivering in services in the most sparsely populated rural areas.
Before Christmas, local government secretary Greg Clark said the government would increase the amount of the Rural Services Delivery grant from £15.5m to £65m in 2019-2020.
But MPs warned that this failed to recognise the extent of the rural-urban funding gap.
Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham, said rural constituents in Buckinghamshire would fare particularly badly from the government’s proposed settlement.
Ms Gillan warned: “It is no exaggeration to say that this year’s local government settlement is far worse than the worst case and the worst scenario that the county council had calculated.
North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson said: “We have to put this right. We do not want to ask for a single penny more from the Treasury; we just want a fair settlement within the envelope.”
North Dorset MP Simon Hoare said: “The increase of the rural services delivery grant to £65m is welcome but way south of the £130m that the network believes is required.
“It might just about make a fig leaf for a dormouse but will not add up to anywhere near what is required to service rural local government.”
Mid Dorset and North Poole MP Michael Tomlinson said he was not calling for special favours but simply for fairness from the government.
“The aim should be to reduce the inequality rather than increase it.”
While almost all the MPs criticising the government were Conservative, the debate itself was co-sponsored by Labour MP Sue Hayman.
Ms Hayman represents the Cumbrian constituency of Workington, which includes a large rural area in one of England’s most rural counties.
She said: “Those of us who have been brought up in rural communities have lower expectations about what services we are entitled to, and we should not have; we should demand what we pay for.”
Responding for the government, local government minister Marcus Jones acknowledged that some rural councils with low council tax bases faced “particular pressures”.
He added: “We are currently consulting on the settlement, and all councils, including those from rural areas, and Members of this House are welcome to respond.”
Describing Mr Stuart’s comments as a significant contribution to the consultation, Mr Jones said he would also take on board other remarks made by MPs.
But the government’s proposed funding package would continue to see a narrowing of the gap between the core spending power for rural and urban authorities.
Mr Jones added: I have listened carefully to what has been said in the House today, and we continue to listen carefully to our colleagues in local government.”
The government is expected to announce its final funding settlement for local authorities by the middle of February.