COMMONS

Give rural communities a fair deal, MPs urge Government

24 July 2013

In an inquiry scrutinising the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its Rural Communities Policy Unit, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee finds that much more needs to be done if Defra is to achieve its target of ‘fair, practical and affordable outcomes for rural residents, businesses and communities’.

Today publishing her Committee’s report Rural Communities (HC 602), the Chair of the Committee, Anne McIntosh MP, said:

"The Government needs to recognise that the current system of calculating the local government finance settlement is deeply unfair to rural areas in comparison with their urban counterparts. This is unacceptable.

 Rural communities pay more in council tax, receive less government grant and have access to fewer public services than people in large towns and cities.

 Defra must work with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that future settlements recognise the premium that exists in the provision of services to rural areas."

Funding

The extra cost of providing services to rural communities is evident across the public sector. Yet, in 2012-13 rural local authorities received less than half the per head funding that urban authorities got. In areas such as education the Government is reducing local authorities’ flexibility to allocate extra funding to small rural schools with higher running costs.

Anne McIntosh added:

"The Government’s changes to the school funding system reduce local authorities’ ability to vary lump sum payments to schools according to need. This is a backward step. Furthermore, while we welcome the introduction of sparsity funding in principle, local authorities must be given more flexibility to decide the criteria to apply it."

Broadband

Rural businesses, schools and households have fallen behind their urban counterparts when it comes to broadband access. The Government’s Rural Broadband Programme is running nearly two years behind schedule. The roll-out of superfast broadband to 90% of rural areas will be delivered late and it is unclear when the target of universal access to 2Mbps broadband will be achieved.

Anne McIntosh said:

"Broadband has become a basic utility yet thousands of people in rural communities have ridiculously slow speeds or no connection at all. The Universal Service Commitment of 2Mbps is crucial and meeting it must be prioritised over increasing speeds for those who already enjoy an adequate service. The Government must be clear when broadband will be available to those currently without access.

 To expedite the roll-out of superfast broadband the Government must publish details showing precisely what areas will be covered by BT under the Rural Broadband Programme in order to allow alternative providers to fill in the gaps."

In August 2012 it was announced that the BBC would contribute £300 million towards the roll-out of rural broadband from 2015.

Anne McIntosh added:

"The Government has known about the money from the BBC for some time and has no excuse to delay using it when it becomes available.

Given the problems with the existing Rural Broadband Programme we believe the £300 million from the BBC would be best used as a lever to encourage private and community sector capital and expertise to further the roll-out of superfast broadband to rural communities."

Mobile

The lack of mobile phone coverage in large parts of the countryside is unacceptable. The Mobile Infrastructure Project aims to help 60,000 premises currently in voice ‘not-spots’ but this is a significant reduction in scale from the project’s original aim of extending coverage to up to six million people. The revised scheme may also do little to improve geographic coverage. Almost 30% of England lacks 2G coverage from all four of the main mobile phone operators – this figure rises to nearly 70% for 3G services.

Anne McIntosh said:

"We are concerned that in focusing on reducing the number of premises in ‘not-spots’, which may already have landline access, large parts of the countryside and those who work in it may still be left without access to mobile technology."

Housing

Parts of rural England can be some of the most unaffordable places to live in the country. On average people working in rural areas earn less than those working in urban areas but rural homes are more expensive than urban ones. According to Halifax rural house prices have risen 35% faster in the countryside than in urban areas over the last decade – the average rural house price is now £30,000 higher than its urban equivalent.

Anne McIntosh said:

"Rural England desperately needs more affordable housing yet the Government’s housing policies pay insufficient regard to the needs of rural communities.

 Failure to provide more of the right housing, at the right price and in the right place will exacerbate the existing problems of unaffordability and inequality in parts of rural England"

Rural Economy

Defra has made growing the rural economy its top priority, but barriers to be overcome include improving rural businesses’ access to finance.

Anne McIntosh said:

"The Government must ensure that initiatives that offer financial support to the business sector such as the forthcoming Business Bank and the Single Local Growth Fund are as available to rural businesses as they are to their urban counterparts."

Further information

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