Levelling Up in the south

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Westminster policy has a habit of ignoring the less populated rural areas of the country, says MP Simon Hoare

Simon Hoare MP
Simon Hoare MP

For a little too long for comfort, the important policy initiative of Levelling Up has been translated in the media, by commentators and by much of the voting public as being solely reserved for towns and cities north of Birmingham.
No one will doubt the desirability of making our former industrial towns attractive places to live, work and socialise; in so doing we better balance the national economy but also relieve pressures for house building and economic development south of Birmingham.
However, to see it as Northern-facing only is a mistake and it is one where the Government needs to be doing more to demonstrate that there is something in Levelling Up for everyone, irrespective of where they live in the country.

Dorset musketeers
If buses come along in threes, then so do Dorset Tory MPs seeking to catch the eye of Mr Speaker in an important recent Commons debate on Levelling Up our rural areas.
Messrs Drax, Hoare and Loder – the political equivalent of the Three Musketeers – spoke up for our county. I spent most of my time talking about the need to ruralise the rubric. This is not the sexiest of topics but it is vital.
One could be forgiven for thinking that too many central government funding equations are still rooted in calculation methodology which specifically ignores the pressures of delivering public and other services in rural areas.
Steps have been taken recently to recognise this in terms of school funding; I spoke up for such changes in Parliament on many occasions and we are now seeing the benefit of the rural location of schools being taken into account.

A Rural Tzar
Too many of our funding rules have been written in Whitehall for Whitehall by people who think that a country walk is a saunter round Hampstead Heath. In my speech I called for Government to appoint a Rural Tzar (or Rural Squire?) who would have a cross-departmental brief to ensure that policies had been ‘rural proofed’.
What do I mean by that?
Well, that it has taken into account a sparser population, the fact that the age profile is older and that delivery of, for example, in-home adult social care is more difficult given that customers may live many miles apart.
That our village school buildings are older and therefore more expensive to heat and maintain.
That housing is less plentiful and therefore more costly, making it more expensive for youngsters starting out on their careers to get on the local housing ladder.
That our police and ambulance services face geographic challenges – four policemen in central Manchester, for example, cover far more people per square mile than the same in rural Dorset.
When it comes to flood prevention works carried out by the Environment Agency, they need to assess the bang they get for each buck per head of the population.
£500k spent on a scheme that benefits 200k people meets the funding test but a (just as much needed) £500k scheme that benefits 1,000 people does not, simply because rural populations are smaller.
If everyone is paying their taxes, there is clear merit in ensuring that there are urban hurdles for proposals to overcome and there are rural hurdles to overcome: they just cannot be the same hurdles.
The Minister replying to the debate told us all that he understood the message.
It wasn’t just the Three Dorset Musketeers making the case but every rural MP who spoke. . There was no doubting the passion and commitment we all felt on these important issues. The Prime Minister, representing a rural seat in North Yorkshire, gets it too.
The message has been delivered.
Pressure will be maintained. Watch this space.

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