Since I first became your local MP, I have championed the needs of those who live in rural areas. Over ten years ago I became the inaugural chairman in Parliament of a cross party group set up to campaign on behalf of rural communities to provide a strong voice in Westminster. At the end of January, I was once again elected as co-Chair of this All Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Services.
The main thrust of our efforts are to ensure that government truly recognises the specific challenges in providing services to rural and sparsely populated areas, and the cost pressure this brings to local authorities and other public services like schools and hospitals.
When I was first elected in 2005, we were in the midst of a deliberate steady shift of funding away from rural areas to more metropolitan areas. Rural counties like Shropshire came under increasing pressure, as the previous government prioritised urban measures of deprivation, without considering sparsity, when it came to allocating national resources.
While that shift in resources has abated, as a result of this unfair funding in the past with limited progress in reversing these allocations, rural areas remain largely worse off in public funding than urban authorities. I had the opportunity to speak in the House of Commons on this subject during the Local Government Finance Bill debate last month, to illustrate to senior Ministers the gulf between rural and urban areas, both in their relative ability to raise funds and in the respective costs of providing services.
For example, in terms of councils’ spending power, the proportion funded by council tax in rural areas for the coming year, 2018-19, is 69%, while the proportion of spending power funded by council tax in urban areas is 55%. So the burden on council tax payers in rural counties like Shropshire is significantly higher than in a similar sized urban authority, like Coventry. Band D Council Tax payers in Coventry pay broadly the same amount of Council Tax as those in Shropshire – but Coventry receives £21.5m more than Shropshire through Central Government funding, despite an almost identical number of dwellings.
When it comes to the cost of service delivery, it is self-evident that providing services in sparsely populated areas is more expensive than in densely populated areas. A care worker can visit more people in Coventry in a normal working day than they can in South Shropshire.
So clearly, the formulae used to allocate funding from central government to local authorities is not fair.
Prior to the debate, I had been lobbying hard with other MPs, led by Daniel Kawczynski, MP for Shrewsbury, to press for further funding to help meet rising costs of providing social care in Shropshire. So we were pleased that in response to our efforts, Shropshire gained an additional £2.25m, giving it a Core Spending Power of £231.3 million for 2018-19.
But the issue of rising cost pressures, from an increasingly elderly population and associated adult social care costs, is not going away, and we shall be feeding evidence in to the Green Paper on Social Care due this summer. I was surprised to learn ahead of the debate that only 10 constituencies now have a higher percentage of over-65s than the Ludlow Constituency, where over-65s make up 28.2% of the population.
While the additional funding announced last month was welcome, I was particularly pleased to secure confirmation from the Secretary of State that the current consultation looking into what drives cost pressures for local authorities (which closes this month), will feed into the next spending review. If sparsity and rurality are properly factored into the formulae determining local authority spending, Shropshire should stand to benefit over the long term, which is what we need.