The statistics show how country areas lose out. An effective service has to be provided and paid for, and the greater part of the cost is funded by government grant. The shortfall has to be paid for by residents through council tax.
The amount of grant is worked out according to a complex formula, which favours the conurbations against country areas. The result is that country people end up paying more for services than their neighbours in the conurbations.
So, for example, North Yorkshire fire service receives annual grants of approximately £13m, whereas Humberside, which includes Hull and which has a similar population, receives approximately £21m.
It’s difficult to compare figures for different authorities, in view of different accounting formats, but it would seem that North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue receives a grant equivalent to £15 per resident.
However, the amount of grant per resident for South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Humberside is about £26, £27 and £23 respectively.
The total number of call outs in these three Yorkshire authorities may be as much as twice as many as those in North Yorkshire and York, but North Yorkshire is England’s largest county with an area of almost 9,000 square miles.
Unfortunately government funding formulas take no account of the distances firefighters have to travel to get to a fire or floods, and the need to be able to provide a swift response to all the outlying areas. The result is that the authority has to find the shortfall, and North Yorkshire taxpayers have to contribute more per person than residents in the conurbations.
Country police are in a similar position. York and North Yorkshire Police receive approximately £91m in annual grant, whilst all the other Yorkshire police authorities receive more than twice as much and Humberside gets about £141m.
As a result, economies have to be made and the funding shortfall falls on the taxpayer. So, in York and North Yorkshire, there is roughly one policeman for every 480 residents, while in West Yorkshire the ratio is one policeman for every 308 residents and in Humberside the ratio is one policeman for every 384 residents.
While “Band D” taxpayers in West and South Yorkshire pay about £213 yearly for their police service, York and North Yorkshire residents have to pay approximately £245.
North Yorkshire has low crime rates, but the monthly statistics for recorded crime for March this year show 6,044 incidents for North Yorkshire and 6,857 for Humberside.
It is therefore difficult to understand why York and North Yorkshire receive a grant of £91m, whereas Humberside gets a grant of £141m. The population of both authorities is similar, but Humberside includes Hull.
The conurbations do have higher rates of crime. In the same month, there were 12,661 incidents in South Yorkshire (population 1.3m) and 22,462 in West Yorkshire (population 2.1m), but there are not the same travel to incident issues which arise in the sparsely populated areas of North Yorkshire.
The police lose credibility if they cannot get to the scene of the crime in time to catch the offender, just as the fire service is expected to be on site in time to rescue people and stop fires getting out of control or spreading.
This funding model is clearly unsatisfactory. The grants which are paid to authorities come from taxpayers’ money collected mainly as income tax. Income tax is assessed according to earnings, but council tax is an arbitrary figure which depends on a notional value of one’s house, as assessed many years ago and now often out of date.
The council tax is unfair because it takes no account of people’s ability to pay, and the highest burden falls on those least able to pay.
The countryside is a wonderful place to live in, and many residents are very rich. However, generally speaking, country areas have low wage economies, and so it is not fair if by far the greatest number of residents, in effect, have to pay a higher proportion of the cost of local services than people who live in the conurbations.
The council tax system is also unwieldy and unnecessary in a modern digital age. It should not be necessary to have two taxes; two sets of bills and two sets of completely separate collection systems.
Council tax could be abolished if, instead of collecting council tax, each council (including police and fire authorities) could simply precept into the national income tax system, so that a “local income tax” would be collected from residents in the authority’s area.
If we had a local income tax, we might have to depend less on government grants.
Paul Andrews is an Independent councillor for Malton on Ryedale District Council.