As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Services, I hosted this week our Rural Vulnerability Day in Parliament.
Much discussion was focussed around a research report on the State of Rural Services 2018 compiled by Rural England. This has taken an in-depth look at 8 key areas of rural service provision in contrast with more urban areas. These were: buses and community transport; broadband and mobile connectivity; public library services; hospitals; Public Health services; young people’s services; shops and online shopping; and public advice services.
Having consistently been banging the drum for rural issues for almost two decades, I was shocked to hear remarks from the Shadow Minister for Local Government last month calling fairer funding settlements for rural areas “perverse reverse redistribution”, when comparing Councils in Labour seats like Hackney – which incidentally has a core spending power per dwelling 27% higher than Shropshire.
But this reminded me of the importance of having good data with which we can ensure rural areas like Shropshire continue to be pushed up the government’s agenda.
We have had some success so far, with 14 government departments/agencies now having a dedicated senior civil servant responsible for considering rural implications of policies. We have also seen some more equitable distribution of funding for important areas such as schools and local government. But this report shows why there is still much more to do.
When it comes to connectivity, rural areas are improving but still lag significantly behind urban areas. Given obvious transport difficulties compared to urban areas, it is all the more important for rural connectivity to improve, so business and employment opportunities can open up.
The report also highlighted that while young people in rural areas fare better than their urban peers in education and mental health, they tend to score worse on a number of key public health indicators - risky behaviour, alcohol consumption, smoking and being bullied.
So there is clearly more work to do. This powerful State of Rural Services report will help add weight to our campaign for greater funding for rural areas, particularly in the context of the next Spending Review from HM Treasury, expected to take place in coming months. I intend to take a leading role in championing the rural voice in the Spending Review.