A FAIR DEAL FOR RURAL AREAS

I get a host of emails from special interest groups, lobbyists and campaigners, but the ones I really look out for are the regular updates from the Rural Services Network, which  has just published its manifesto, calling for a fairer deal for rural England.

The document, Seeking the Best for Rural England, calls on an incoming government to set the framework for a thriving rural economy, mixed rural communities, and better rural services.

In presenting the manifesto, Cllr  Cecilia Motley, from Shrophsire, who chairs Rural Services Network, argued that sustained budget cuts have left many rural local authorities at a tipping point where frontline services will start to collapse – and I dont disgaree with her.

She added, “In England, almost one in five people live in our rural towns, villages and countryside.

“Rural communities are significant contributors to the nation’s economy. If they thrive, the chances are that the nation thrives too.

“The scope for management and back-office efficiencies had now been exhausted.

“This is not an unrealistic call to hike government spending, but a call for recognition that in hard times especially, rural areas deserve their fair share of public expenditure.

“It cannot be right that in almost every sphere of public policy less is spent on rural communities than on communities elsewhere,” added Councillor Motley.

“The historic underfunding of rural services must be brought to an end.”

The manifesto calls on the government to make sure policy making is  subject to rural proofing, so sufficient early thought is given to how those policies will benefit rural communities and any unintended rural consequences can be identified.

The key points of the manifesto are:

Planning: Government must get real about the time it takes for local authorities to go through the complex process of producing a Local Plan for their area, especially since delays are often caused by its own Planning Inspectorate. When developers go to appeal, more weight should be given to draft Local Plans.

Affordable housing: the ill thought through proposal to exempt smaller housing development schemes from any obligation to provide some affordable homes should be scrapped, at least for settlements with fewer than 3,000 residents.

Local government finance: the formulae used by Government to distribute grants among local authorities needs revision. The current approach is demonstrably unfair to rural residents and taxpayers, leaving them paying higher Council Tax bills while receiving fewer services.

Public transport: local authorities should be funded to cover the home-to-school transport costs of 16 to 19 year olds who stay in education. The value of Bus Service Operators Grant must be protected.

Health facilities: Both the funding system for NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups and that for public health services require urgent change to make them fairer. Steps are required to ensure national targets for ambulance response times are being met in rural areas.

Older people: Initiatives which support older people in their own homes, such as Village Agents and First Contact schemes, should be supported and promoted.

Fuel poverty: Government should enforce the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) target, which says that 15% of households helped by their energy provider to reduce bills should be rural.

Village services: Government should renew the 2010-15 commitment, that there will be no programme of post office closures, through the next Parliamentary term. It should support Local Plan policies which seek to retain village services in their current use.

Broadband connectivity: Government should announce a much more ambitious target for access to fast broadband networks. Its existing target, that all households can access a 2 Mbps connection, is out-of-date and unhelpful.

Rural economy: Business support and advice services must extend into rural locations, so these opportunities are not squandered. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) or their successor bodies must set out how they will achieve this and then assess their rural impacts.