Residents living in rural England are being failed by ministers who are focusing state funding on towns and cities, according to a committee of MPs. Countryside communities suffer a "rural penalty", with higher house prices and council tax but less funding for local schools and poor internet and mobile phone coverage, the MPs say.
In a new report, the cross-party environment select committee calls on ministers to do much more to reverse the "deeply unfair" rate of state funding for rural areas. The government should also find ways to make buying second homes in the country less attractive, the MPs argue.
The report was published three days after another study, from the charity Age UK, found that elderly people in the countryside suffered from isolation as a result of cuts to transport services and shop closures. Rural areas make up 86 per cent of England and around one-quarter of the population - some 12.7 million people - live in the countryside.
More than half a million businesses in rural areas contribute a total of £200 billion to the national economy. Ministers have promised a renewed effort to "rural proof" Whitehall policies, and have published new guidelines intended to ensure that government decisions do not make life worse for people living in the countryside. The Select Committee found that the government has failed to honour previous promises to protect rural communities, which may be widely dispersed and already lacking in infrastructure, from suffering further difficulties.
Anne McIntosh, the Conservative chair of the committee, said rural schools and businesses were suffering as a result. "Broadband has become a basic utility yet thousands of people in rural communities have ridiculously slow speeds or no connection at all", she said. "The Government must be clear when broadband will be available to those currently without access."
(nb The recent new agreement between the Government and British Telecom goes some way towards improving speeds.)
The report says it is "unacceptable" that rural areas receive less in central government grants than urban councils, the committee said. "Rural communities pay more in council tax, receive less government grant and have access to fewer public services than people in large towns and cities." The Government needs to recognise that the current system of calculating the local government finance settlement is deeply unfair to rural areas in comparison with their urban counterparts.