Angela Harris: Unfair funding has failed Yorkshire's rural areas

I LIVE in the beautiful county of North Yorkshire, in the famous and equally beautiful town of Richmond. With a population of 8,413 at the last count, we are at the head of the Yorkshire Dales, with small hamlets and villages scattered over a huge area, where farming is the predominant industry, closely followed by tourism.

Rural issues are in the spotlight at the Great Yorkshire Show.
Rural issues are in the spotlight at the Great Yorkshire Show.

Public services in my part of the world have been decimated since I first joined North Yorkshire County Council in 1981 and they are now in crisis.

We hear much up North about the Northern Powerhouse, but any benefits accruing to this so far have been generally in the cities and urban areas of this region and have yet to percolate to those of us who live in the vast rural areas of North Yorkshire.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Our local enterprise partnership, which is a pale shadow of the former Yorkshire Forward regional development agency, works hard to deliver the benefits through many projects in its strategic economic plan.

I wish it well, but the deep rural areas in which our communities live need greater attention and commitment in order that they, too, may achieve their potential.

The Select Committee report, The Countryside at a Crossroads: Is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 Still Fit for Purpose, states: “Each and every Government department should be seeking to take account of the circumstances facing rural communities when developing policies.”

It goes on to suggest that Defra, being the responsible government department for these matters, does not have the cross-government influence or capacity required to embed rural proofing more widely.

In considering our small rural schools – many of which have had to close, ensuring that children have longer journeys to travel – Rural England states that rural FE students face particular barriers with transport, with fewer than 40 per cent of them able to get to a secondary school by public transport in reasonable travel time.

They also have less choice of which school or college to attend. In North Yorkshire – disgracefully – parents are charged for transport for their children when they reach 16-plus.

Fuel costs are greater, and for North Yorkshire this is a major consideration, as it takes well over two hours to drive from one end of our county to the other, and much longer in the summer months.

This also means, of course, that there are hundreds of miles of roads that need upkeep, with potholes to fill and verges to clear.

The county council’s Network report state: “On average, county councils received £650 per person for public services in 2017/18, such as adult social care, buses, libraries, bin collections, pothole repairs and children’s social services.

“In contrast, a city or Metropolitan borough resident, receives £825 for their services, whilst those who live in inner London enjoy £1,190 per person,”

It is grossly unfair that we receive £3.2bn less than other parts of the country for services to which we have an equal right. We need a fairer funding settlement.

With health provision in rural areas – in particular where I live in Richmond – the key problem is access to services, and the frustration for the people who live there is the lack of democratic accountability.

The main health trust for our area is the James Cook University Trust in Middlesbrough, which is a good hour from where I live and much longer for Dales people.

Do not have a heart attack in Hawes. That trust has gradually run down one of our treasured hospitals – the Friarage in Northallerton.

There is a veneer of apparent consultation, such as the current one over the potential closure of the accident and emergency unit there, but we all know what the outcome of the consultation will be.

I shall finish on a more positive note. Innovative ideas are coming forward from one of our rural police officers.

He manages to keep crime rates in his area right down by having an excellent relationship with local farmers and linking them together with radios so that they can report directly to each other and to the police any crime suspected of being committed. It has a great deal to do with the lifeblood of rural areas: volunteers.

Baroness Angela Harris is a Liberal Democrat peer. This is an edited version of a speech she gave in a House of Lords debate on rural services.