As my hon. Friend is aware, we have commissioned some detailed research on sparsity which shows that there is no need at present for any radical changes to standard spending assessment formulae.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but does he agree that it frequently costs more to provide services in rural areas, and that many people living in the countryside do not enjoy the services enjoyed by those who live in towns and cities, such as recreation and leisure facilities and concessionary travel arrangements? When my hon. Friend considers the studies to which he referred, will he please bear in mind those costs on shire district councils and ensure that, if anything, their SSAs go up, not down?
My hon. Friend will be interested to know of two other pieces of research. The sparsely populated authorities researched this subject, and their final report concluded that the allowances for sparsity should be at least as great as they are at present. Interestingly, the research for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities argued for lower percentages, and concluded that there was an argument for no sparsity allowances at all.
Mr. William O'Brien:
When considering the revision of SSAs in rural areas, will the Minister have regard to the representations made during the past five or six years by authorities in the Webber Craig group for fairness in the allocation of SSAs for education, social services and community care?
As I think I said in my original answer, research shows that there is a need for the sparsity factor, but that no great change is required.