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Cumbria highways chief backs call for fair funding for rural public services

Keith Little

Cumbria’s highways chief is backing a call for fair funding for rural public services to ensure areas can benefit from a shift away from city life.

Rural areas are poised to play a key role in building back better if the Government adopts an approach that sees “parity of investment in core public services and growth-enhancing investment”, MPs, peers and other delegates told a conference earlier this week while warning that Britain’s post-Covid recovery risked being weakened by poor connectivity and other challenges across key regions of the country.

The greater acceptance of remote working brought about by the pandemic has “shaken the faith that cities are the solitary engines of economic growth”, Professor Jeremy Phillipson, director of the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise told the Rural Services Network (RSN) event.

Yet he and others warned that rural areas may be hamstrung from taking advantage of the reduced need for people to live in cities for work, because of poor investment in core services including transport, infrastructure and housing.

The campaign comes in the wake of the announcement of the final Local Government Finance Settlement for 2021-2022.

Under this, urban areas in 2021-2022 will receive 61 per cent of (£107) more per head in Settlement Funding Assessment more than their rural counterparts who will, on average, pay £96 more per head in council tax than urban residents.

Panellists at the event raised a number of challenges, including that:

  • Travel timesAccording to the RSN, travel times for getting to GPs, workplaces and colleges are “typically double” in rural areas.
  • Housing: The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the rural housing market on its head, as city-dwellers have flocked to the countryside in pursuit of more space and to take advantage of the stamp duty holiday, forcing property prices up, said Ed Buscall chair of Hastoe Housing Association. Excluding London, the average house is £90,000 more expensive in rural areas than urban areas. Many rents are also unaffordable for those on local wages.
  • Economy and Connectivity: director for strategy and communication at Cornwall Council and from Britain’s Leading Edge called for a “place-based approach” to delivery taking to account the differences in economies, including the bringing forwards of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund consultation.
  • Richard Wainer, director of policy and public affairs, networks at BT Group called on the Government to provide “clarity on the size and shape of the fibre funding programme and to remove deployment barriers” to address connectivity issues for rural residents and businesses.

Among the speakers at the event was Keith Little, transport portfolio holder at Cumbria County Council.

The Revitalising Rural document, entailing 14 policy areas the Government must address in order to Revitalise Rural communities in the UK, can now be accessed here: www.rsnonline.org.uk/revitalising-rural.

The RSN will be distributing its campaign document to Ministers, Select Committees and APPG and senior civil servants seeking meetings to discuss future action.