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West MPs rebel against Government over rural council cash shortfall

By GDemianyk  |  Posted: February 14, 2014

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Four Westcountry Liberal Democrat MPs have voted against the Government in protest at a shortfall in funding for rural councils.

Andrew George (St Ives), Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay), Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) and Adrian Sanders (Torbay) all rebelled in a vote on the financial settlement for local government from April.

Many MPs from the region back the Rural Fair Share campaign, which argues urban councils receive 50% more funding per head than rural authorities, but not all have expressed their disquiet through the voting lobby.

Ministers have attempted to avert a shires rebellion by pledging an extra £9.5 million to be shared among rural authorities. And they have now added a further £2 million to sugar the pill.

But Mr Gilbert said the "paltry" settlement had failed to re-balance funding in favour of rural communities, despite assurances the gap would be reduced.

He argued if Cornwall was funded at same rate as urban councils, the authority would receive £42 million more every year – rather than the additional £560,000 it has actually received.

He said in the Commons: "(The additional funding announced) is really just an additional £2 million on top of a paltry £9 million.

"If that £11 million is divided across the 95 most rural local authorities, they will have barely enough money to employ a full-time officer.

"(The settlement) is woefully insufficient to start to close the divide between rural and urban funding that so bedevils parts of the country such as Cornwall.

"I am disappointed, to say the least, that that case has not been heard today. On that basis, it would be wrong for me to support what I think is an inadequate settlement tonight."

He said afterwards: "We pay more in council tax, we get less in other grants and the cost of running services is more expensive than elsewhere.

"I'm not asking for special treatment – just the chance to be treated fairly compared to other parts of the country."

Sir Nick told the Commons Devon County Council is now consulting about a programme of cuts that will end all its non-statutory obligations.

This would include ending the subsidy on meals on wheels, closing its day centres and getting rid of all its residential care homes.

The former minister said: "This will cause absolute fury on the part of voters. I do not think that it is acceptable.

"We have people moving into our area who are aghast at the low level of public services that they find in comparison with other parts of the country that they have come from. It cannot go on like this."

He said later: "The Government have acknowledged there is a problem, and have found £11.5 million to redress it, which equates to just over a pound per head. This simply isn't enough.

"At this rate it will take us 145 years to right the gap in terms of the Government grant – how can this situation be justified?

"For these very reasons, a number of my rural Lib Dem colleagues and I voted against the Government's local government finance plan for the coming year."

Other MPs who have voiced concerns at the rural shortfall voted with the Government.

In response, Local Government Minister Stephen Williams said: "We have recognised that services are sometimes more difficult and expensive to deliver in rural areas.

"I certainly recognise that poverty is found in all parts of the country. It is not necessarily concentrated only in city centre constituencies.

"That is why we have already set aside £9.5 million – £1 million more than last year – to help the authorities in the most sparsely populated rural areas.

"I thank Sir Nick Harvey for saying that we ought to go a little further. In fact, today we have announced a significant amount of extra money: £2 million."

The settlement was approved by 276 votes to 185.

Read more from Torquay Herald Express

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