In Somerset, local government looks pretty small. In the 600 or so square miles of my constituency, there are six, gusting seven bus routes, one of which is under threat at the moment. There is one train station, and library opening hours and bin collections have been reduced. There is a limited number of small road improvement schemes and absolutely no major road improvement schemes. There have been cuts to drug advisory services and youth clubs and there is less funding to support the elderly in their homes and communities.
In return, there is a higher precept for flood protection and adult social care, and higher council taxes. I make no criticism of Somerset County Council, which froze council tax for six years when household incomes were tightest, helping families across the county. Furthermore, it was saddled with the reckless debts of the Lib Dem administration. None of that party’s Members can be bothered to turn up for a debate today on local government finance—presumably because they are too busy in the other place turning their backs on democracy instead of standing up here for the communities that they still pretend to represent. That administration racked up debts of £350 million when it was running Somerset County Council. That means that millions of pounds every year from the council’s budget is spent on the interest of those Lib Dem debts.
All that is happening while petrol prices are rising in rural areas—they are rising everywhere, but in rural areas the impact on the cost of living is felt more quickly. For my many constituents who live off the gas grid, heating oil prices have gone up. My constituents pay the same as those who live in cities for their mobile phone and broadband contracts, yet get a fraction of the functionality and connectivity. Their house prices and rents are well above the national average yet their wages are well below it. It seems so unfair that the solution the Government have come up with for reducing local government funding, widening the gap between urban and rural, is to increase the council tax burden on those living in rural areas when their cost of living is already, in so many cases, so much higher than elsewhere.
Last year, the already unfair gap in funding between urban and rural areas would have widened had it not been for the last-minute intervention of the then Secretary of State, who put in place an interim grant so that rural and urban funding, although being cut, would be cut by the same across the board. But that interim grant did nothing to correct the trajectories of those cuts, so that this year the gap between urban and rural widens by just as much as it was always intended to do. That brings with it no reflection of the cost of rurality or of an ageing demographic and no reflection of our limited ability to grow our economy, given the lack of connectivity and the size of the working-age population as a proportion of the population as a whole.
Somerset County Council and the district councils in our area have now set their budgets for this year. Those painful decisions have been taken, so it is really all too late for this year. However, as my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, who is no longer in his place, said in this debate at this time last year, we have to accept that public services in rural areas have not just been cut to the bone; all the marrow has been sucked out as well.
The disadvantage for rural areas cannot continue, so I warmly welcome the announcement that the Secretary of State has made at the Dispatch Box today. The review to which he has committed is ambitious in scale and scope. This is not about claiming that rural areas should be at an advantage over urban ones; it is simply about making things fair, which requires a full understanding of the cost of delivering public services in rural areas and a formula that allocates funds accordingly. That review is urgent. I note that the Secretary of State said that it will be completed ahead of the introduction of the full retention of business rates for 2019-20, but we cannot leave it until this debate in two years’ time to be clear about the result of the review. Councils need to know the outcome of the review by this debate next year—in January 2018—so that they can know that the jam tomorrow that we have been promising throughout these difficult four years means that their retention of business rates will be baselined at x, and they can start to plan accordingly. Certainty is all they have left to ask for now that it is clear that there ain’t gonna be any more money in the near future.
So, too, must the Government set a mechanism for the ongoing review of the baselining of business rates when the business rates retention has been introduced. I am sure that the Secretary of State and his team will agree that the potential for economic development will vary from region to region, and from area to area. Considering that the economic development team—if, indeed, one is left—in many of the smaller and more hard-pressed county councils is one person, the opportunities to grow the economy are somewhat more limited. We must have an eye to the idea that once we have baselined in 2019-20, some areas, through their entrepreneurial guile, may be able to grow their economies and their rates bases more quickly than others. Therefore, there will be a requirement to reset from time to time so that the deal remains equitable. Or—I am equally happy with either solution—the Secretary of State could direct that the growth deals allocated better reflect the areas where skills, connectivity or workforce availability are most difficult.
The south-west lags behind the rest of the country on infrastructure spending, and we are well behind on connectivity and on our skills base, yet when the growth deals were announced recently, the deal for the Somerset and Devon local enterprise partnership was particularly poor. It would be great to see the growth deals reflecting the areas where the economic development challenge is greatest so that when it comes to this entrepreneurial idea of the full retention of business rates, which I wholly support, we will start with equality of opportunity because we will have the connectivity, skills and infrastructure in place.