Levelling down - Public services in rural areas are not fit for purpose

The RSN Chief Executive, Graham Biggs MBE, has written an article which was featured in the Fabian Policy Report. A copy of this article is provided below.

No-one should Be disadvantaged by where they live. This is meant to be a fundamental principle of government policy. In the real world, however, these are just fine words.

For rural areas, the government funding support received for public services is much lower per head of population than that received by their urban counterparts. As a result, those public services and the residents, businesses and communities who rely on them are greatly disadvantaged.

It is not just that rural areas receive less funding; it also costs more to provide services to a rural population. This fact is widely acknowledged but not sufficiently reflected in the various funding formulae used to distribute national funds to support local services.

It is a myth that rural areas need less support. When we look at the measures used to decide which areas need ‘levelling up,’ then if all rural areas were brought together as a single region – one more populous than Greater London – this region would be, on the government’s own measures, the region needing support above all others.

All of the above has been true for decades – but the austerity years made things worse. And the government’s renewed appetite for spending cuts is likely to compound the damage.

Local government services

Let us first take local government funding. Rural residents pay 21 per cent more in council tax per head than their urban counterparts; yet the total funding power of rural areas is still less than urban areas, because they receive less money from central government. In 2022/23, urban areas will receive 59 per cent more in government grants per head than rural ones.

The result is that rural residents pay more yet get fewer services. Rural wages are some 6 per cent lower than those in the country as a whole – and the cost of living is higher – yet those living in rural areas pay for more of their local services through council tax.

In 2012 the government seemed to acknowledge the problem and changed the local government funding formula. But through a process called ‘damping’, it blocked an average of 75 per cent of the benefit reaching each rural authority, and then froze the formula, limiting further changes. In contrast, inner London boroughs gained £236m from the damping processes, £166m of which was received by just five local authorities.

When national resources are scarce it is more – rather than less – important that those resources are distributed fairly. And fairness has to mean fully recognising the different costs to different types of areas of achieving similar outcomes.

The problem is compounded because the demand for and costs of statutory services – those services which councils are legally obliged to provide – are increasing hugely, especially in adult and children’s care. This leaves less available for ‘discretionary’ spending: in 2022/23, rural councils were budgeting to spend £67 per head on discretionary services whilst urban councils were budgeting to spend almost double that (£131.30 per head). But so-called discretionary services are essential for healthy communities to thrive. Support for bus services; community support; support to the local charitable and voluntary sector; provision of sport, leisure and cultural activities; economic and community development; all these are classed as discretionary spending, and all have been, and are being, cut back. This will, in the long term, almost certainly manifest itself in greater costs for the NHS and damage wellbeing.

It also puts rural authorities in a vicious cycle: less funding means less staff capacity, making it harder to find the time to prepare bids in government competitions for funds.

Policing services

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to policing. Rural communities face specific challenges that need to be recognised when it comes to funding and delivering policing in rural areas. Some of those challenges were highlighted by research commissioned by the National Rural Crime Network (NCRN) in 2021. Key findings showed that the main factors that people in rural areas feel contribute to their vulnerability as potential victims of crime was the fact that they lived far from the nearest police station (34 per cent) and being elderly (21 per cent).

A lack of confidence in the police by the public was also apparent. 21 per cent of respondents from rural areas said they did not report a crime because they thought the police would not take it seriously. 19 per cent said they did not report a crime because they ‘dealt with it themselves’. A recent BBC report even found some farmers employing private security due to organised theft of farm vehicles and equipment.

Once again, funding is a problem. Rural police forces face similar financial problems to rural councils. Fixed, non-staff costs are higher amongst rural forces, who cannot benefit from economies of scale due to the need to serve more dispersed, low-density populations. This equates to £32.1m across the forces serving the 10 smallest areas by population, the equivalent of more than 600 officers.

Significantly higher round-trip distances are found in forces serving low-density populations; this, too, increases costs. As rural forces have lower officer numbers, the burden per officer is higher by up to 65 per cent. These factors represent implications for not only service delivery but also officer welfare.

The additional costs of policing rural areas are unavoidable and have a significant impact on service delivery; yet, as with local government services, they are not properly reflected in the formula.

All the more worrying, then, that the evidence suggests that over recent years organised criminal gangs have been increasing their operations in the countryside, which is seen by criminals as lower risk and higher reward than other areas. Whether it’s house burglaries, farm machinery theft, or hare coursing, criminals know that policing rural communities across the country is not effectively coordinated in terms of intelligence sharing amongst police forces.

For too long, the specific needs of rural communities have been overlooked when it comes to crime prevention and victim support. The NCRN and its partners are calling for the creation and funding of a National Rural Crime Unit (NRCU) led by police officers with an expert understanding of the challenges facing rural communities. An NRCU would, for the first time, see national coordination of rural crime teams across the country and sharing of intelligence and best practice. With an enhanced ability to track and analyse rural crime, we could start to work with the government on fairer funding for rural policing and the more effective targeting of existing resources. Rural communities deserve a police service that genuinely understands and responds to their needs.

Health and care services

The February 2022 report of the All-Party Parliament Group on Rural Health and Care and the National Centre for Rural Health and Care highlights the health and social care situation in rural areas and focuses on the challenges that must be addressed. Similar challenges were identified by the Chief Medical Officer’s 2021 report Health in Coastal Communities.

In summary the inquiry found:

  • Emergency services – funding formulas do not properly reflect the impact of rurality on service delivery costs.
  • Hospital trusts – just six rural hospital trusts carry a quarter of England’s health service funding deficit, with rural area funding adjustments being outweighed by other factors.
  • Social care – the costs of funding adult social care are an issue nationally, but rural local authorities often spend a disproportionately large part of their budget on these services.
  • Innovation in integrated service delivery and better use of technology offer ways to mitigate the burden of adult social care costs, but overall demand and costs are still rising.
  • Island and coastal communities funding formulas do not reflect the particular circumstances and costs of service provision in these settings.

Funding to rural areas adjusts for the extra cost of ambulance provision and also includes an allowance for remoteness.

However, these two factors are outweighed by a further two factors, market forces and health inequalities, which together move around £600m of funding from predominantly rural areas to urban and less rural areas.

In essence, rural residents – who are also, on average, significantly older than those living in towns and cities – are disadvantaged throughout their life compared to their urban counterparts. Access to maternity care is more problematic; the wider community services for children and young people are less accessible; primary and secondary care are less readily available for people of working age, including preventative and screening services; and the provision of both health and social services for the growing proportion of older citizens is increasingly inadequate. We are not offering equal care for all in England, despite the NHS commitment to do so.

Until the basic funding for all public services is put on a demonstrably fair footing, rural levelling up will be impossible to achieve

Importantly, it is not just access to healthcare that is compromised in rural areas, but the very determinants of health themselves. Poorer educational provision and facilities for young people, fewer day centres for those of more advanced years, lacklustre digital connectivity, poor housing stock, and economic uncertainty in the agricultural and tourism industries all influence the health and wellbeing of rural residents.

Rural residents, communities and businesses are being disadvantaged by where they live. Until the basic funding for all public services is put on a demonstrably fair footing, rural levelling up will be impossible to achieve. What we need is a cross-departmental, properly funded rural strategy – anything less would represent a dereliction of duty.

You can view this article on page 22 of the Fabian Policy Report


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