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RURAL UNITARY GROUP - A group within a group
Cllr Roger Begy (Chair); Cllr Peter Bryant (North Somerset); Cllr Les Ford (Cheshire West & Chester); Cllr Rachel Bailey (Cheshire East); Cllr Cecilia Motley (Shropshire); Cllr Roger Phillips (Herefordshire); Cllr Jonathan Owen (East Riding); Cllr Jane Evison (East Riding); Cllr Clive Webb (Somerset County Council Scrutiny Committee); Helen Briggs (Chief Executive – Rutland); Graham Biggs (RSN); Dan Bates (RSN); David Inman (RSN)
Cllr Alex Folkes (Cornwall); Cllr Jane Scott (Wiltshire)
1. Finance – Rural Fair Share Position
The Rural Service Delivery Grant was discussed. Its importance was that it formed part of the main settlement so would help every year. After major lobbying it had also been increased to £11.5m. It was of course far too little (at this rate it would take 145 years to close the gap effectively) but gave ground for some optimism.
The planned DEFRA/DCLG study was discussed. It would be in two parts:
a. was there a case (by September 2014)
b. seeking to quantify (following year), it was understood Ministerial consent had been given for this to proceed.
A meeting with Graham Stuart MP and his colleagues was planned for after Easter.
It was felt we needed to illustrate clearly to government what difference the grant had made to authorities budgets. We also needed to show MPs how it had helped. It was recognised that in most cases the 2013/14 ESSSA had been put into balances as it had been stated as being a one-off grant.
It was also important to observe that the amount had been so small that the urban councils had not even made observations about it. It was anticipated London Councils would seek to minimize the betterment to them of the Business Rate System by over generous allowance for appeals in the early years.
There was a concern the Better Care requirements could have really bad unforeseen consequences for rural unitaries as lots of people in rural areas were self funding and would, if the legislation went through, need supporting.
The Group also needed to keep a watch out for the commissioning role slowly going to local government.
The Sparse Rural position of being invited to discuss the position with regard to the intended study and about emerging business rate pattern with DCLG was emphasised.
After meeting with Graham Stuart MP the unitary councils would be written to with details of what was planned for 2014/15.
In respect of the position on balances a report from the Finance Group would be given to the meeting to be held at the LGA Conference.
The ultimate aim had to be to put right the wrong of the last year when the need for financial improvement was recognised by the government but was then damped away.
2. Public Health
There was no allowance for sparsity and the position was going nowhere fast. A report back on the issue with data had been due in April 2014 but this had now been postponed to April 2015.
The APPG had in January looked at the implications of the minimum practice income guarantee, (for GP practices) and it is unfortunate impact on rural England. It was clear that Public Health England was not aware what its role might be in future and to the degree Local Government might be involved. A lot of money continued to be tied up in regional set ups that may well be abolished if the Conservatives remained in power after the Elections.
Rises of 10% to admin staff seemed to have occurred. Kevin Fenton, the Deputy Director of Public Health England, was recognised as a good contact. The model in Herefordshire where the Chief Executive also had an Executive health role was a possible option for authorities in the future.
3. Officer Networks Established
Helen Briggs, Chief Executive Officer, reported that the following groups had been established:
Broadband (Matt Smith – Herefordshire and Gloucestershire)
Rural Transport (Matt Burton, Deputy Chief Officer for the Group – Cornwall)
Social Services (Helen Coombs – Herefordshire)
Health & Well Being (Sav Del Rocca – Rutland)
The groups were beginning to work well currently with 5 to 6 members each. It was felt each should then have a conduit into the financial process. They should be covering work they would be doing anyway but just selecting out rural unitary council issues.
4. Broadband Group
The problem was always the final 10% which were creating situations of rural isolations. There were virtual no go areas no one wished to touch. The only way was to examine the alternative approaches and technologies and what had and had not worked. The position however was pretty desperate.
BT and BDUK were accused of always concentrating on low growing fruit. It had been said by Government that over the next year money for rural areas would be given priority, but in reality the rural areas that were being looked at were on the edge of commercial areas and then black spots in the areas that had already been dealt with. The really rural areas were not getting attention. This scatter gun approach meant even some industrial estates and even areas of Enterprise Zones were missing out. Because grant money was available the perception given was that the buck seemed to lie at the local authority door and not at BTs.
What was happening was regarded as scandalous. BT were delivering only where it suited them commercially. Progress by five digit postcodes. They had not drilled down anywhere near far enough. It was felt vital that at least every school was covered and East Riding were contemplating experimental work here.
5. Rural Transport Group
Matt Burton would invo lve the new Chief Transport Officer for Cornwall when he came into post.
There was an increasing problem in rural areas because of the cut backs with reducing and disappearing service. This impacted on young people who were having consequential difficulties with employment and skills training and older people who were suffering isolation. In some areas there was capacity to plug some of the gaps in the market by using the Voluntary Sector through subsidising certain paid drivers, but it was impossible to achieve this country wide as in many areas the volunteers did not exist. Even larger tracts of areas were without transport.
It was hoped the Group could establish some hard evidence here.
East Riding, using a bottom up approach, had built up a network of Community Transport slowly over 4 areas. It had to be taken at a careful pace to make certain it worked. However it seemed the only real proposition available in many places. It was observed that Ambulance Services were using duplicate routes and liaison should be taking place and it was not. North Somerset were having to reduce transport funding by 50%. There was a real concern that rural businesses would move if transport problems limited their capacity for shift work.
6. The Social Services Group
This Group had been widened to cover Better Care, Housing and Community Health. It would therefore be known as the Health and Well Being Group. The Group was looking for case studies about carers, young people and innovation. The Group would be looking to give key messages for ADAS and the requirements in rural areas were identified alongside an assessment of additional costs involved.
7. Finance Group
The Finance Group, under Sav, would collate all financial information provided by the other groups. It would in turn seek to identify the common problems and patterns emerging from Rural Unitaries. Its work would also be important in linking back and giving information to the Fairer Funding process. It was hoped a good flow diagram could be created.
8. Primary Schools
A volunteer to lead this group had not emerged as yet. Helen had received some interest from one person but further discussion was necessary. An Education Officer in East Cheshire would also be approached by Rachel Bailey.
There had been a sudden change in the funding formula by an £8.9m transitional measure introduced until the main review in 2017. The work of F40 was praised. This may have taken the immediate sting out of the situation but there was clearly long term desirability for a group. Chris Chapman and the work being undertaken by a schools forum in the south east was commended.
There was a current consultation exercise that needed responses by the end of April and Cheshire East would provide a template for others to look at. It was felt there needed to be better links for rural. One area where it was considered immediate liaison should occur was concerning the impacts from the Strategic Defence Review. This could have massive ramifications and impacts on schools both from the view of closure of bases and the reuse of some as troops returned from Afghanistan. Resulting variation in the school role could be as high as 80%. Helen was happy to Chair a sub group looking at this if no group leader emerged in the next few weeks
9. Bid to the Transformation Fund
Helen had registered provisional interest on behalf of the Group and would respond to the current consultation. It would be for the service groups to decide whether they wished to identify a work area that it was felt might benefit from a bid into the fund.
10. Rural Councils experience of LEP Operation
The Group looked at a paper from Andy Dean. The LEPs had now been split, for grouping purposes, into ‘new’ regions; presumably to allow lessons to be learnt from each other.
It was felt that given this and the current work load the prospect of establishing a rural group should be left for now and reconsidered in a year’s time.
11. Terms of Reference of Group
Agreed as follows:
The Rural Unitaries Group
To assist Unitary authorities with significant rural areas in their day to day operation by sharing and collating operational information, by establishing best practice, and by collective working generally.
To identify common financial viewpoints and to argue the case for rural unitary authorities in relation to issues where mutual financial advantage can be established.
To examine together proposals affecting services across member authorities and to argue the case found to be of maximum benefit to these authorities.
12. Meeting at the LGA and Approaches to Non Members
There were a number of authorities remaining outside the group.
These fell into two categories:
a. Small Unitaries
Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, North East Somerset, Redcar and Cleveland and West Berkshire
b. Traditional County Unitaries
Northumberland and Durham
It was felt that the LGA Conference gave the ideal opportunity to stage a meeting of the Group that could:
(i) Demonstrate the position reached and the tangible benefits already established of working together including if possible a presentation through the service group heads.
(ii) Invite the non members to be involved to general discussion about sharing work experience, challenges and goals
13. Date of Next Meeting
Would be at the LGA Conference in Bournemouth on Thursday the 10th July (8.30am to 10.00am), venue to be notified.
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