Rural areas are being left behind in the Government’s levelling up agenda.
Research commissioned by the Rural Services Network (RSN) shows rural areas face a triple whammy of lower funding, higher costs and greater need, which is seriously hampering efforts to grow local economies and maximise economic growth and service delivery to their often sparse populations.
Rural areas are penalised in terms of government funding. In 2021/22, urban areas will receive some 61 per cent (£107) per head more in local government settlement funding assessment grant than their rural counterparts.
Rural residents pay on average 19 per cent (£96) per head more in council tax because of historical underfunding from government.
In addition, rural communities are disadvantaged by the way that government allocates spending spatially, thus failing to unlock the opportunities they can offer as part of a digitised, decarbonised and decentralised modern economy.
It costs more to deliver services in rural areas because of the sparsely populated nature of rural communities, which lack economies of scale.
“Rural communities have greater unmet needs”
Services can suffer from a lack of competition. In the case of social services, local provision is often non-existent, requiring expensive provision to be brought in from further afield.
Finally, rural communities often face a greater demand for services.
An ageing population, poor public transport links, a lack of affordable housing and low wages means that rural communities have greater unmet needs.
The Government announced specific funding pots to help support disadvantaged communities, but research commissioned by the RSN shows that the Towns Fund, UK Community Renewal Fund and Levelling Up Fund are allocating funds through the selection of statistics that may not reflect a holistic approach to an area.
This, coupled with political imperatives, leads to money being directed towards urban, northern towns. The RSN has called on government to develop a fair set of metrics for the allocation of funds, that takes into account the true picture of rural areas.
The RSN’s National Rural Conference, held in September, focused on ‘levelling up to revitalise rural’, and considered themes from the RSN’s Revitalising Rural: Realising the Vision campaign launched in March (see www.rsnonline.org.uk/revitalising-rural). The campaign sets out several asks of government in 14 key priority policy areas.
The message to ministers from our conference is loud and clear:
- Fairly fund rural services – delays caused by Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that rural areas continue to suffer through unfair allocations of funding to deliver services.
- Ensure that processes put in place to ‘level up’ are based on evidence – while unemployment is relatively low in rural areas, rural jobs pay less, living costs are higher and official statistics often ignore rural poverty.
- Understand the needs of rural communities – government must ensure that policies are at a minimum rural-proofed, which also means collecting data at a low enough geography so that significant pockets of deprivation in rural areas are not hidden. The Government should take a strategic view of rural areas and develop targeted policies.
Only by tackling all of these major challenges can the Government ensure that rural areas contribute to the post-pandemic recovery to their full potential.