Struggling councils given just £650 by coalition

Westminster wants to close the gap between rural and urban funding settlements
Westminster wants to close the gap between rural and urban funding settlements
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SOME rural councils received just £650 in support from a Government grant designed to help close the huge funding gap which punishes people living in the countryside, a senior MP has revealed.

Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh, who chairs the Commons Environment Committee, said rural areas must “continue to press the case” for a fairer funding deal as she exposed the tiny grants some local authorities have received from Westminster.

The Government has faced a concerted lobbying campaign from MPs in rural constituencies, led by Beverley and Holderness MP Graham Stuart, to start closing the long-standing funding gap which sees rural councils receive 50 per cent less funding per head than their urban counterparts.

Ministers have acknowledged there is a problem and offered an additional grant last year for the most rural councils, which they claimed would start to redress the balance.

But Miss McIntosh – currently battling de-selection in her own constituency – told the Commons the amount of money some councils received has been too small to make any discernible difference.

“Some payments are as small as £650,” she said. “That is clearly not the long-term solution to the problem of rural councils not getting their fair share.

“Regrettably, the Government has rejected our call for the gap between rural and urban councils to be reduced. We must and we will continue to press the case.”

The £650 payments have clear echoes of the derisory £915 which central Government gave to North Yorkshire to compensate for the disastrous flooding which struck the county in 2012, as revealed by the Yorkshire Post last month.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) refused to say which authorities received the tiny amount, but did not dispute the figure.

Only last month DCLG Ministers were extolling the virtue of their support grant for rural areas in the Commons as they unveiled further funding cuts for local councils for the coming year.

“This settlement is fair to all parts of the country – rural or urban, city or shire,” Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis claimed, as campaigners dismissed the additional grant as “chicken feed”.

The issue is particularly prescient at the current time as rural areas see cherished local services such as bus routes and mobile libraries cut back or closed down altogether by cash-strapped town halls. North Yorkshire County council is planning to hike council tax this year for the first time since 2010 due to the ongoing squeeze.

The funding gap exists because the formulas used by Whitehall to determine how much money is provided to local authorities give significant weight to concentrated levels of deprivation – typically found in large towns and cities – but little to the fact services are hugely expensive to deliver in far-flung communities. Rural areas also tend to have older populations more reliant on social care.

Miss McIntosh said: “It is true that many in rural communities live in relative comfort and prosperity, but there are also enormous challenges.

“There are pockets of rural poverty and isolation, as well as poor public services. Public services cost more to deliver in sparsely populated rural areas, where there is also a high concentration of the elderly population. All those factors represent a challenge.”

Mr Lewis last night insisted the Government was supporting the countryside, however.

“We agree that rural areas received a raw deal under the Labour Government, and we have taken steps to compensate for this under-funding,” he said.

“We want to do more, but there is no magic money tree. We still have to pay off the deficit left by the Labour Government and it’s a zero-sum game – more funding would have to mean higher taxes or bigger cuts for someone else.”

Comment: Page 16.