April 18: Time for fairer council funding for all

THE latest call for greater funds to be made available to rural areas needs to be seen in the context of the recent history of local government finance. For too long, this issue has been characterised by the governing party – whether it be Conservative or Labour – meddling with the funding formulae in order to appease their own supporters.

It is why the Tories do find ways to assist the ‘shires’, and shore up services for the elderly, while Labour have always strived to favour urban areas and policies intended to alleviate poverty. Yet, rather than retaining the status quo because the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems all agreed for reasons of political expediency to maintain the outdated Barnett Formula which affords the Scots far more funding per head of population than the English, there needs to be a complete overhaul of funding to reflect population changes and the make-up of local government as the city-regions become empowered.

Irrespective of the outcome on May 7, three things need to happen. First, there needs to be clarity on the role of town halls – and the proportion of funding that they should expect from the Treasury.

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Second, a formula needs to be devised that is totally transparent in order to avoid the annual argument about whether rural areas have been penalised at the expense of large metropolitan councils – and vice-versa.

Finally, it will help local authorities to plan for the future if they have the clarity afforded by long-term funding settlements rather than the present ad hoc arrangements which are invariably settled on the whim of the Department of Communities and Local Government. This is how businesses operate and, in most instances, many town halls have greater financial undertakings than blue-chip companies, hence the need to bring their financial arrangements up-to-date.

The question now is whether there is a political leader with the courage to do so. For, if not, claims of funding bias are only going to intensify – and become even more difficult to reconcile in a manner that is fair and acceptable to every citizen of the UK.

Election deadlock: breakthrough appears unlikely

THREE weeks down, three to go and still little evidence of the Tories or Labour securing a breakthrough which has the potential to be decisive on the night of May 7 when the votes are counted after a seemingly interminable campaign.

This, in essence, is the state of play as the election campaign reaches its halfway point – Britain is no nearer to making up its mind following the TV debates which shed more heat than light on the great issues confronting the electorate.

Yet, while the future format of the debates should be the subject of a post-election review free from political interference, it is hardly surprising that David Cameron and Ed Miliband are stuck in a rut when their respective campaigns have been so negative.

Both men need to start relating to people – the Prime Minister received a far warmer reception in Leeds on Thursday when he responded to questions from his audience by focusing on his own future plans for the country rather than ridiculing his opponent.

If he continues in this vein, and matches his policy promises with greater clarity on funding, Mr Cameron is far more likely to win over those sceptics who still harbour misgivings about Tory plans for welfare reform and the NHS.

There is one other reason why Mr Cameron, and Mr Miliband for that matter, need to become far more statesmanlike – this is the best way of engaging with first-time voters so they do become involved with the democratic process.

Mortgage move: will there be sufficient houses?

IF THE latest mortgage offers are an accurate barometer, there has never been a better time to purchase a property – one lender is offering a five-year deal at a record low interest rate of 1.99 per cent.

Yet, while this chimes with the economy’s progression from austerity to aspiration, it should be pointed out that banks and building societies are still reluctant loanees – a much larger deposit is now required as a down-payment. And then there is the availability of housing for first-time buyers.

Prices are still out of the reach of many young people because there simply is not enough houses to keep up with demand, a point that has still to be adequately addressed by Britain’s political leaders in the wake of David Cameron’s bold decision to extend the ‘right-to-buy’ scheme to the tenants of housing association properties.