Manifesto calls for fair deal for rural England

PRESS RELEASE
For immediate release

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The Rural Services Network [1] has published its manifesto ahead of the 2015 general election - calling for a fairer deal for rural England from an incoming government. 

The manifesto, Seeking the Best for Rural England, calls on an incoming government to set the framework for a thriving rural economy, mixed rural communities, and better rural services [2].

Rural Services Network chair Cecilia Motley said: "In England, almost one in five people live in our rural towns, villages and countryside.

"Rural communities are significant contributors to the nation’s economy. If they thrive, the chances are that the nation thrives too.

"Policies for health care, education, economic growth, transport, housing and so on must all benefit rural communities and meet their needs. "

Sustained budget cuts had left many rural local authorities at a tipping point where frontline services will start to collapse, said Councillor Motley.

The scope for management and back-office efficiencies had now been exhausted, she added.

"This is not an unrealistic call to hike government spending, but a call for recognition that in hard times especially, rural areas deserve their fair share of public expenditure.

"It cannot be right that in almost every sphere of public policy less is spent on rural communities than on communities elsewhere," added Councillor Motley.

"The historic underfunding of rural services must be brought to an end."

Any moves to devolve more powers and budgets away from central government and to local levels must pay equal attention to rural areas, says the manifesto.

"Devolution is not just an agenda for cities or city-regions. However, devolution should not be tied to some centrally imposed restructuring of local government."

The manifesto addresses the following issues:

Planning: the planning system is now stacked against local authorities and communities. Local wishes are too often overridden at appeal, with house building given the go-ahead in the wrong locations. Government must get real about the time it takes for local authorities to go through the complex process of producing a Local Plan for their area, especially since delays are often caused by its own Planning Inspectorate. When developers go to appeal, more weight should be given to draft Local Plans.

Affordable housing: the ill thought through proposal to exempt smaller housing development schemes from any obligation to provide some affordable homes should be scrapped, at least for settlements with fewer than 3,000 residents. By definition housing development in villages tends to be small scale. This proposal would end the means by which two-thirds of all new affordable homes in villages are being delivered.

Local government finance: the formulae used by Government to distribute grants among local authorities needs revision. The current approach is demonstrably unfair to rural residents and taxpayers, leaving them paying higher Council Tax bills while receiving fewer services. Proposals in a 2012 Government consultation to right this wrong – which would have benefited 170 Councils and Fire Authorities – should be fully implemented as exemplified in that document. This should happen either by revising the formulae or by extending the Rural Services Delivery Grant.

Public transport: bus services – already scarce in many rural areas – are facing widespread cutbacks as their subsidy is threatened. The impacts will be felt most acutely by groups such as the elderly, young adults and those without access to a car. Local authorities should be funded to cover the home-to-school transport costs of 16 to 19 year olds who stay in education. The value of Bus Service Operators Grant must be protected.

Health facilities: the oft-stated wish to see more of the NHS budget spent locally needs to be pursued, to improve access to non-specialist treatments for rural communities. Both the funding system for NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups and that for public health services require urgent change to make them fairer. NHS funding must reflect local demand for services. Public health funding should reflect needs, not just historic spending patterns. In both cases funding should cover additional delivery costs in rural areas. There is a rising concern about difficulties recruiting to rural practices, just as many GPs and practice nurses approach retirement. Rural practice must be made attractive and, if necessary, incentivised. Steps are required to ensure national targets for ambulance response times are being met in rural areas, so that emergency patients are not being put at risk.

Older people: many support services for older people have to be put out to competitive tender. It should not be permissible for tendering organisations to cherry-pick urban centres, where it is easier to deliver them cheaply, whilst ignoring rural areas. Initiatives which support older people in their own homes, such as Village Agents and First Contact schemes, should be supported and promoted.

Fuel poverty: with over half of village homes off the mains gas network and many solid wall homes, fuel poverty is a key rural concern. Government should enforce the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) target, which says that 15% of households helped by their energy provider to reduce bills should be rural. This target is a long way from being met. Yet rural households, including the fuel poor, pay into the ECO fund through their energy bills.

Village services: remaining basic services, like the pub, shop and post office, are the life blood of villages. Government should renew the 2010-15 commitment, that there will be no programme of post office closures, through the next Parliamentary term. It should similarly retain the access measures which it set for the Post Office network. It should support Local Plan policies which seek to retain village services in their current use.

Broadband connectivity: broadband has become an everyday necessity for most businesses and households. Yet without some public sector intervention rural areas will always lose out. Government should announce a much more ambitious target for access to fast broadband networks. Its existing target, that all households can access a 2 Mbps connection, is out-of-date and unhelpful. Government intervention should focus on those locations which are clearly uncommercial for IT network providers.

The rural economy: rural areas can be good places to do business. They are host to a diverse range of service and manufacturing, as well as land-based, sectors. Business support and advice services must extend into rural locations, so these opportunities are not squandered. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) or their successor bodies must set out how they will achieve this and then assess their rural impacts.

Rural proofing: we will look to an incoming Government to recommit to the principle of rural proofing – that its policy making will take proper account of rural needs. Policies that are designed simply with the urban majority in mind will not do. This commitment should come from the top, with the backing of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

ENDS


Media contact:

Cecilia Motley
Rural Services Network
M: 07850 583083
E: Cecilia.Motley@shropshire.gov.uk


NOTES TO EDITORS:

1. The Rural Services Network is a group of more than 200 organisations working together to improve the delivery of rural services across England. The two operating arms of the network are the Sparsity Partnership for Authorities Delivering Rural Services (SPARSE) and the Rural Services Partnership. Further information and a full list of members are available at http://www.rsnonline.org.uk

2. The full manifesto can be downloaded at www.rsnonline.org.uk/images/files/rsn-manifesto2015.pdf

3. The Rural Services Network seeks to establish best practice across the spectrum of rural service provision. The network has representation across the complete range of rural services, including local authorities, public bodies, businesses, charities and voluntary groups. We are devoted to safeguarding and improving services in rural communities across England. We are the only national network specifically focusing on this vital aspect of rural life.

4. The Rural Services Network exists to ensure services delivered to the communities of predominantly and significantly rural England are as strong and as effective as possible. The term 'predominately rural' refers to counties and Local Authority districts with at least 50 percent of their population living in rural settlements (ie. rural towns, villages, hamlets and dispersed dwellings) as identified in the Office for National Statistics' rural definition, and including larger market towns as identified in the Defra classification of Local Authority districts. The term 'significant rural' refers to those Local Authorities who are between 25% and 50% rural under the same classification. The rural definition and classification were devised by the Rural Evidence Research Centre (RERC) at Birkbeck College. Further information on these can be found on the RERC website at www.rerc.ac.uk.

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