Rough deal for rural communities

ndet 94968  Fire engine
ndet 94968 Fire engine

Pressure on public funding threatens to put rural communities at risk when it comes to fire and rescue services, warns a report.

Predominantly rural fire and rescue services receive just £17.52 per head of population, compared to £28.89 per head of population for Greater London and metropolitan areas according to the annual State of Rural Public Services.

On a per capita basis, the most urban areas thus receive two-thirds as much funding again as the most rural areas – even though rural fire and rescue services face particular costs.

At the same time, rural distances mean less opportunity to hold down levels of cover in one fire station, knowing that back-up cover is available from a neighbouring fire station.

Report author Brian Wilson said: “Ensuring adequate emergency cover for rural communities is a serious matter.

“Fire and rescue services may not be used as a part of daily life in rural areas but their ability to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies are of critical importance.”

This year’s report also focuses on differences between rural and urban broadband availability, business support and actions to address fuel poverty.

Improvements are needed across all three areas, the report says.

Nationally, two-thirds of users now have access to a fast broadband connection and a rapidly growing number can access superfast broadband. The same cannot be said for rural users.

At the same time, satisfaction with support services varies among the 505,000 rural businesses which contribute almost a fifth of the country’s economic productivity (GVA).

Low earnings are exacerbating the problem of fuel poverty, which is most prevalent in rural areas, the report says.

A key reason is that the majority of homes in villages and hamlets are off the mains gas network, leaving households dependent on more expensive fuels.

Councillor Roger Begy OBE, chair of the Rural Services Network, said: “We are approaching the mid-point of a four year squeeze on public expenditure announced by the 2010 Spending Review.

“Local authorities, whether in rural or urban areas, face large reductions in the formula grant they receive from Government to fund the running of public services.

“There is every indication that there will be further severe cuts imposed by the Government on local government, with rumours of another 20% reduction in the next review, if not sooner.

“A fairer deal for rural areas in the distribution of Government formula grant is long overdue and would, at least, help to soften the impact.

“It is important that Government now confirms it will take more account of sparsity costs from 2013 onwards and that it does so in full.”

Graham Biggs MBE, chief executive of the Rural Services Network, said:

“This report really drives home the added challenges of delivering public services in rural areas where local authorities have to deliver more with less.

“Nevertheless, it gives me great pride to see innovations in these areas which should serve as an example to local authorities across Britain who are having to survive budget cuts.”