County aids major Government inquiry into rural services costs

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Rural communities in North Yorkshire which council chiefs have long argued are shortchanged over the cash they receive from Government to invest in local services are to take part in a major national review.

Council bosses in North Yorkshire have repeatedly said successive governments have failed to recognise the simple fact that it costs more to provide key services such as schools, maintain roads and provide social care in countryside communities and the Government investigation will examine the difficulties and higher costs incurred in North Yorkshire.

North Yorkshire County Council has been chosen to take part in a major inquiry by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, into the unique financial pressures which apply to local authorities serving predominantly rural areas.

More than 90 councils volunteered to take part in the inquiry and North Yorkshire – one of the most sparsely populated counties in England – was chosen as a case study after making representations to the Government about how its rural character impacts on its budgets.

“Providing services to people in rural areas like ours can be much more expensive in many ways,” said County Councillor Carl Les, executive member for strategic services.

He said 47 per cent of the country’s population lives in rural or semi-rural areas.

“I’m not so sure that we are overlooked but think sometimes there’s a view that if you live in the country you don’t have issues of deprivation and poverty whereas we know that you do,” he said.

North Yorkshire, for example, has one of the highest bills in the country for home to school transport, which costs some £22m every year. Coun Les said the county council, which has long argued areas such as North Yorkshire are disadvantaged when it comes to handing out cash, recognised cities and urban areas also had their own needs. But he said areas like North Yorkshire faced huge difficulties because of the sheer distances its staff had to travel.

A care worker, in an urban area for example, may be able to see several people a day but the numbers that an employee in North Yorkshire could see would be more limited because they may have journeys of an hour between appointments - lowering productivity and pushing up costs.

It also faces challenges maintaining its vast roads network. A recent analysis shows the maintenance backlog for the entire network is approximately £322m - with more than half classed as ‘category 4’ minor roads.

Even if the backlog was removed, the council estimates it would still require around £60m a year simply to maintain the county’s roads in good condition.

In times of austerity the authority says it has had to be more creative in delivering services.

Since 2011, the county council has implemented and made plans for total cuts of around £170m. A programme of savings totalling £94m is already in train, including cuts of approximately £20m which took effect in the 12 months beginning this April.

“It is good that the Government has responded positively to our offer to be one of the authorities which should be at the centre of this study,” Coun Les added yesterday. “We hope very much that this inquiry will translate into tangible financial assistance.”

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