Rory has called on Government to recognise the significantly higher costs faced by local authorities in rural areas in a backbench debate in Parliament. Speaking in the chamber yesterday, Rory highlighted the fragility of rural communities who face significant under-funding in health, education and other essential services, and warned of the “perfect storm” of a situation whereby the demographics of an ageing population and communities struggling with issues of fuel poverty and unaffordable housing, will conflate to create a seriously challenging situation for Cumbria.
Figures released by the Rural Services Network show that on average, rural residents pay council tax which is £75 higher per head of population, yet receive substantially less support for service provision. Current proposals will see residents receiving approximately 65% of the grant given to urban dwellers, and for significantly rural areas – like Eden – authorities will face cuts of close to 5% as opposed to an average cut of 2% to urban councils. This equates to a reduction in spending power of 2.10% for authorities in rural areas. As their service levels, out of necessity, start at a thinner level and are more expensive to run, it is feared the impact of current proposals will have a severely detrimental impact on rural communities.
He drew attention to some sobering figures. Cumbria’s Clinical Commissioning Group is under threat of a 10% cut to its budget of £62 million pounds; its Fire Service is already in receipt of one of the lowest allocated budgets in the country; and the National School Funding Formula continues to fail to recognise factors of sparsity, with the ‘sparsity factor’ determined on proximity to school, rather than distance by road.
Speaking in the House of Commons chamber, Rory said:
“It’s very easy to feel that the debate between rural and urban is somehow a debate which is trivial or unjustified and indeed those of us on this side of the House who have been fighting this now for nearly three years often find ourselves facing scepticism from officials and Ministers. There is an implication that what rural areas are asking for, which is a quarter of a percent of funding year by year is either based on faulty statistics or is somehow going to have no impact. It is that which I wish to challenge.
It feels perhaps from London as though the request we are making is very small. It feels like the tiny tip of a lever. But when the lever is 359 miles long and the fulcrum is right here in Westminster, that quarter of a percent makes and enormous amount of difference. And it makes and enormous amount of difference because rural areas are in a very unusually fragile position in this country – more so than almost any country in the world. Britain was of course the first country to industrialise – the first country to develop a truly urban population. We had one sixth of the entire population of Britain living in London in the mid 18th Century. As a result, we don’t have vigorous rich rural communities with local democracies and huge local populations.
This quarter of a percent matters because rural areas are precious. They are precious, they are fragile, and they have never been so fragile. They are being depopulated – we can walk across the English-Scottish borders where we see houses abandoned and where we can see parishes which in 1850 had 2500 people which are now down to 300. In those valleys are the very last traces of our history and very last traces of our landscape which we do not, in this house, wish to turn into a wilderness. So that sounds like a very grand statement to come down to a quarter of one percent.
It sounds perhaps petty to say that just because rural areas pay more in council tax, receive less in services and earn less they should not be making this small demand. But it is a demand that is very consistent – consistent with the traditions of this party, with the traditions of this house with the traditions of this country. What I believe we all share in this house is a sense that rural areas should not be seen as marginal victims, just because 90% of the population live in cities. We should not patronise these areas. Look at Eden district council which is the most sparsely populated council containing the most sparsely populated parish in the whole of England. When you see the kind of struggles that Gordon Nicholson, the wonderful leader of the council, or Kevin Beaty, you see that what they are struggling with is not simply being victims but the possibility of being the future of this country. Somewhere we can be proud of. Somewhere the Minister and everyone in this room can visit. Somewhere where 9 million tourists a year come to see living Britain where they wish to see not a wilderness but a rich community of houses and schools and living people and for that quarter of a percent, I would ask the Minister please to be generous.”