As we await the start of Brexit negotiations, political life continues and concerns are mounting regarding the funding of rural services.
Working closely with our local authorities, it is evident that rural services in Suffolk are coming under increasing strain, especially across core areas including welfare, policing and education. The figures indeed confirm that funding allocated by central government, is directing less towards rural areas, or being withdrawn at a faster rate compared to other, more built-up regions.
Urban areas, we know, tend to be a step change ahead of their countryside counterparts when it comes to developing and accessing services. After all, by the end of 2018 95 per cent of the UK will have access to superfast broadband. The remaining 5 per cent are those harder to reach areas like Bacton and Old Newton. Although unfair, this situation is realistic. The sparse and scattered landscape of the countryside is not only harder to service, but tends to be more costly.
Still, this is certainly no reason to neglect rural areas which are home to 17 per cent of the total population, and national funding formulas have a rural weighting to account for this disparity. Yet, despite these caveats, funding is not being allocated accurately, nor being given sufficient consideration or according to rural needs. For example, basic per pupil funding – intended now to be fairer – will drop by 4 per cent per Suffolk pupil and by 7.5 per cent in basic early years funding. Suffolk remains one of the 50 lowest funded local authorities in the country.
We already know that local government spending is under pressure, however the 2017-18 allocation for local spending for St Edmundsbury, is in the lowest quartile of districts across the country. Furthermore, changes to the recent finance settlements will reduce the rate of local government spending in rural areas, faster and deeper than predominantly urban regions, with almost a 15 per cent difference in Council Tax rates due by 2020.
It is assumed that areas like Suffolk are relatively prosperous however, like any area, urban or rural, it has pockets of deprivation. Clearly, this situation will soon become untenable, particularly for areas like Moreton Hall, with the oldest average life expectancy in the country; welfare, including health, and transport services will almost certainly come under greater pressure.
Whilst this situation is due, in part, to the weaknesses of the rural weighting, this is not a case of urban demand, pitched against rural needs. For instance, the new policing grant allocated £3 million more to Norfolk Constabulary, than to neighbouring Suffolk. Yet, if we do not highlight and begin to address these biases, the difference between urban and rural areas risk becoming deep-seated. Already, I have pushed the Government to keep pursuing fairer funding in our schools, and I am committed to persevering for our fair share, across all our services.
-- Jo Churchill is MP for Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket