The King’s Speech: A missed opportunity for rural voters?

In last week’s Bulletin, I reflected on what rural communities needed to hear in the King’s Speech.  I had hoped that we would see the following principles applied through the provisions set out:

  • An approach that considers the different challenges rural areas face, and solutions to target those challenges;
  • Policy that has been designed to meet the needs of rural areas;
  • The right data, collected at the right level, to enable policy makers to measure the success of policy decisions from both a rural and urban perspective.

Sadly, though unsurprisingly, I, like many other rural champions was disappointed. The word ‘rural’ did not feature once.  Neither did it feature in the briefing notes which were published alongside the speech.  In these, the Prime Minister states “we must do away with the idea that it is inevitable some communities and some places can never and will never get better. They can - and they will. The government can't do this alone - we must all work at it together - but the state does provide the foundations. So, we will deliver on our promise to level up - with greater investment in local areas, to boost growth, create jobs, build a million more homes in places community want them, and breathe new life into our high streets and town centres.”  Fine sentiment, but these foundations must include fair funding for rural local authorities who provide some of the most essential services the public, communities and local businesses rely on.  You only have to look at the current situation with Children Services in Devon. This isn’t brought on by those working on the frontline. It is due to a chronic lack of funding.  Our review of Levelling Up earlier this year showed that if all of England rural areas were together classed as a region, it would be the region most in need of Levelling Up based on the government's own metrics. So, when the Prime Minister says communities and places ‘can and will get better’, he must ensure his government backs a fair distribution of funding to meet the needs of our rural areas. 

In the speech itself (which is written by the government for the King to read) His Majesty said:

“My Government will, in all respects, seek to make long term decisions in the interests of future generations. My ministers will address inflation and the drivers of low growth over demands for growth Over demands for greater spending or borrowing.” 

My colleagues and I will be carefully studying the upcoming autumn statement and the local government provisional finance settlement for 2024/25 to ascertain how this statement impacts on the resources given to rural councils to meet the needs of their communities.

Also featured in the speech was the government’s much lauded ‘NHS Long-term Workforce Plan’.  The King said:

“Working with NHS England, my Government will deliver its plans to cut waiting lists and transform the long-term workforce of the National Health Service. This will include delivering on the NHS workforce plan, the first long-term plan to train the doctors and nurses the country needs”.

The National Centre for Rural Health and Care has produced a Response to the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan which gives a helpful oversight of the impact the government’s plan has for rural areas.  What is clear though, pay, conditions and development opportunities of the care workforce is crucial for addressing long-standing recruitment and retention challenges.  This must be supported by fairly allocated funding.  If you take adult social care for example, in 2023/24, the government provided additional funding.  Only enough though than do little more than allow councils to stand still given their ongoing cost and demand pressures. Budgeted spend on adult social care increased by £2.5 billion (12.8 per cent) in 2023/24. Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) data shows that average fee rates for external home care increased by 9.6 per cent and supported living by 8.4 per cent from 2022/23 to 2023/24. A key driver is likely to be the 9.7 per cent increase in the National Living Wage in 2023/24.  But with costs going up, the extra funding is barely meeting the demands, never mind allowing for innovation or improvement.  The pressure is piling onto the government though, following the publication of the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty’s annual report which this year focused on the health of an ageing population. It highlighted the chronic lack of funding in rural areas and the ticking time bomb of a rapidly ageing population (see RSN Chief Exec: “Lack of government funding has created a rural ticking time bomb”).

Whilst I am not surprised by the absence of ‘rural’ in the King’s Speech, I believe the government has missed a crucial opportunity to engage with almost 10 million people who live in rural areas in a very public forum.  However, rural MPs in the ensuing debates certainly addressed the issue.  Following the speech on Tuesday, Simon Hoare (Con, North Somerset) said:

“I should emphasise that I was encouraged by what was said by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister during the final session of Prime Minister’s Questions before Prorogation, when I raised with him the need to continue the process of review and reform of the funding formulae for a number of key service delivery agencies—the Environment Agency, policing, local government and education—in the context of rural areas. We inherited funding formulae devised by the Labour party, which were tilted principally towards the urban and metropolitan at the expense of the rural. I am not advocating a system in which Peter must pay Paul, but we need greater equity, and an understanding of the difficulties of delivering rural services, in the formulae that are deployed in the making of funding decisions. Progress has been made, particularly in education and certainly in respect of the rural sparsity fund, but I am hopeful that within those “other measures”—that great catch-all—we may well see more changes.

“Anyone who has read as well as listened to the Gracious Speech, as I am sure many of us will have done, may have been struck by what I thought was the most important sentence in it:

“That is why my Government’s priority is to make the difficult but necessary long-term decisions to change this country for the better.

“What could be more Conservative, more traditionally Tory, than that? Taking difficult decisions, not for party advantage but in the national interest: that is a golden thread that runs through my strand of “one nation” moderate conservatism, and I applaud it warmly while also cautioning Labour Members, all of whose speeches have indicated a preference for party interests rather than public service. They say, “Let us have a general election now, because all this will change after it”, as if that would help to solve any problems in the short to medium term. We on this side of the House will continue to govern in the national interest, taking those long-term and difficult decisions.”

On Thursday, the debate turned to crime and order which featured heavily in the speech. Addressing the House of Commons, Anthony Mangnall (Con, Totnes) recognised the need for rural tailored responses:

“As ever, we can do far more to tackle antisocial behaviour and rural crime in areas across the south-west and other parts of the country. Local initiatives have been set up across the south-west that the Government would do well to support, not least the councillor advocate scheme, set up by Alison Hernandez, the police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, in which she liaises with councillors across the area to enhance police visibility and engagement, or my own initiative to create police hubs in village halls across South Devon, driving up visibility, disrupting rural crime and antisocial behaviour and inspiring more confidence that the police are there to help and serve, as we all know they are.”

How the Prime Minster and his government deliver the promises made in the King’s Speech remains to be seen.  However, I commit to ensuring that the RSN will work with and lobby for all rural communities and the organisations which serve them.


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