Rural councils 'under most pressure'

RURAL councils are among those suffering most from government cutbacks, the Rural Services Network has said.

The network issued the warning after the National Audit Office said cuts meant some councils were showing clear signs of financial stress.

Some authorities had coped well with reductions in funding, but others were reducing public services, said an NAO assessment of the financial sustainability of local authorities.

Rural Services Network chief executive Graham Biggs said local authority budgets had been cut by 40% in real terms over the lifetime of the current Parliament.

"Rightly, the initial focus was on making efficiency savings through actions such as restructuring and sharing services," said Mr Biggs.

"Financial pressures are particularly hard for small rural district authorities which have the least scope for cutbacks.

"Little, if any, scope for efficiencies now remains and cuts are inevitably hitting frontline services, particularly those defined as discretionary or non-statutory.

"In short, there is no more left to give."

This was a greater problem in rural areas which had been historically underfunded and where service levels were at a low starting point before austerity cuts were imposed.

Mr Biggs said: "It is widely accepted that it costs more to deliver public services to scattered rural populations. It is unfortunate that the current formula used to allocate government grant gives little weight to this.

"The government recently introduced an additional £11.5 million pot for rural local authorities.

"It is worth £1.10 per head in those rural authorities receiving it – tiny when set alongside the £178 per head funding gap in government grant per head of population for rural areas compared to urban."

Although there have been no financial failures in local authorities in this period, the NAO said a survey of local auditors found that authorities were showing signs of financial pressure.

More than quarter of single tier and county councils - those authorities responsible for social care and education - had to make unplanned reductions in service spend to deliver their 2013-14 budgets, it said.

Auditors are increasingly concerned about local authorities' capacity to make further savings, with 52% of single tier and county councils not being well-placed to deliver their medium-term financial plans.


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