Alicia Kearns: Rural areas are not getting a fair deal

9 Apr

Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton.

Over the last year, our local councils have pulled off Herculean efforts to help our communities survive the pandemic. In Rutland and Melton, our local councils have swiftly distributed grants to businesses, provided urgent support to those most in need, and played a major role setting up rapid testing facilities and vaccination sites.

On top of this, they have kept the normal business of local government running and helped enforce the various public health guidelines that keep us safe.

In my case, the pandemic has been a reminder of how efficient and effective local councils can be, and how that should be rewarded in future funding settlements.

Despite running some of the most efficient councils in the country – Rutland manages to be ranked first in adult social care while also having one of the smallest per capita spends of a unitary authority – the East Midlands has some of the least well-funded councils in the country. Spending is only £8,879 per head, ten per cent lower than the UK average. This is despite East Midlands authorities often serving large rural areas like mine which is far more expensive. Meanwhile, Leicestershire has been named as the most productive county for three years in a row – keeping costs down while maintaining services.

Rural councils continue to have significant gaps in funding levels unrelated to their underlying requirements. If Leicestershire County Council was funded at the same level as Camden, it would receive an additional £350 million a year. If LCC was funded at the same level as Surrey, another rural and suburban council, it would receive an additional £104 million. That doesn’t mean that the solution is simply pouring more money into local councils with no questions asked. The fairer funding review should be a cornerstone of our levelling up agenda. Because to truly level up, we must grow our rural areas, so that they can generate the development and tax base necessary to provide better public services. But this often requires front-end investment to unlock opportunities.

For example, authorities throughout the East Midlands have been working together to expand the A1, which, at the moment, becomes easily congested, redirects traffic through town centres, and causes significant productivity losses throughout the East Midlands. Yet, cost-benefit analyses devised by the Treasury have historically failed to capture the potential development opportunities provided by a larger and more accessible A1, and so for many years, local councils have dealt with increased infrastructure costs in their local roads, adding further to the difficulties in providing adequate services in local areas.

We should be proud that our Conservative Government has taken these issues seriously, and changed Treasury models to make sure the strategic case, rather than a rigid cost-benefit analysis, can be used to invest in the most important infrastructure projects.

That’s not to say old-fashioned Conservative fiscal prudence should go out the window, far from it. Instead, councils should be rewarded for their diligence. In Rutland and Melton, my councils are some of the most efficient in the country. Unfortunately, the current funding model looks primarily at past spending levels, so instead of being recognised for their fiscal rectitude, councils are expected to make do with historically low funding levels. We thus end up in the bizarre situation where inefficient Labour councils aren’t incentivised to improve, and Conservative councils aren’t recognised for their leadership.

This is particularly frustrating when the East Midlands is an area of strong potential growth for our country and governed by some excellent Conservative councils.

That is why the Government’s announced Fairer Funding Review is so important. It is a real opportunity for the Conservative Party to rebalance local government spending, and make sure that every citizen, wherever they live, has access to similar levels of local services.

The Government has already taken important steps to build a more equitable country. Changes to the green book will help unlock projects that bring meaningful strategic and regional benefits, like improvements to the A1 – a major artery of our country. The £100 billion in new capital investment, as well as the roll-out of new rural gigabit vouchers will further empower our rural communities and provide the economic opportunities they need to raise incomes and create businesses.

However, if local councils aren’t able to provide high quality, comprehensive local services because their funding levels can’t accommodate rapid growth in the short and medium-term, much of this work will be undone. Every major piece of infrastructure requires an accompanying commitment to provide local services. There are too many instances where local councils are constrained by short-term budgetary considerations and, as a result, miss out on the opportunity for long-term growth. This is completely understandable though, in the context of uneven local authority funding that has persisted for generations.

Our local councils create the conditions of growth by building communities that are well served and that people want to live in. As Conservatives, we should not only ensure the fairer funding review rewards efficient councils, but also ensure the additional costs of providing services in rural areas, and for smaller councils, are tackled once and for all. Fairer levels of funding will truly unlock the levelling up agenda and power our recovery from the pandemic.

Alicia Kearns: Levelling up must mean protecting our rural communities

6 Aug

Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton

This week NFU Mutual released their Rural Crime Report. It is not good reading. In the midst of the worst crisis our nation has faced since the Second World War, our rural communities are being hammered by organised crime.

£54.3 million stolen in 2019, the highest in eight years and a nearly nine per cent increase on 2018.

Agricultural vehicle and land rover theft up by over a quarter.

No region of the UK reporting a decline in the cost of crime. Scotland’s numbers up nearly 45 per cent.

This is a crisis in our rural communities, and it must end. But we need resources, and rural people need to be heard and supported. It’s time to level up on rural crime.

Too often when policymakers, the public and the press think of rural crime, it’s almost idyllic: the stakes often low, thefts the actions of overly boisterous young men, and the impact minimal. But in fact, much of rural crime involves the theft of heavy equipment, the very tools that farmers and businesses rely upon to make their living, put food on our tables and maintain our beautiful countryside. The stakes are anything but low. According to the latest yearly figures from the National Police and Crime Commission (NPCC), over £39 million of insurance claims were made because of crime in rural areas.

The NPCC has documented the sophisticated cloning, exporting and asset stripping of farms by organised crime groups. In my constituency, I know of one case where a tractor left a farm one evening and arrived on the shores of Poland the next. This isn’t your opportunistic likely lads nicking a quad bike for a couple of hours.

This has a real impact on local communities – not just financially, but also in terms of the mental health of farmers. The NPCC says that “being watched or ‘staked out’ is the biggest concern for people living in the countryside.” A local NFU representative said to me recently, “country people feel that they are under siege”.Farmers have one of the highest rates of suicide in the country.

But what response have constituents received when seeking help from the authorities? When one constituent had his ATV stolen, the first response from 101 was ‘are you sure your kid hasn’t taken it for a spin’? A local farmer, when he told the operator that several of his sheep were missing, was asked ‘are you sure they haven’t just wandered off?’.

When you have spent your hard-earned money, time, and effort on investing in vehicle immobilizers, the latest CCTV technology, remote tracking, five-lever mortice locks, secure compounds for fuel and remote tracking and cyber tech, only be assumed to be careless when you first ring the police, how can you help but feel anything but disenfranchised and defeated. It’s frankly galling.

Our Conservative Government is making record investments in police capacity, but this must be used to tackle rural crime properly too. We can’t afford not to. We are living in a pandemic, where farmers and businesses have already been clobbered by the drop in food prices and in consumer demand. The costs of crime, the burglary of the very tools that farmers and rural businesses need to survive, will hurt our communities harder than ever and hamper our recovery.

We can’t allow the gangs and organised criminals any more leeway. This will take investment, yes, but it also takes planning from every level of Government to fight this issue.

We need to learn from how we tackle serious organised crime, and county lines and adapt it for rural crime. What would this look like?

  • We need to incorporate the Plant and Agriculture National Intelligence Unit into our policing efforts so that the latest tracking data can be brought to bear.
  • We need to level up and standardise our approaches to rural crime across the UK so that every part of the country gets a comparable level of service.
  • We should invest to make sure that the UK Border Agency can play a more active role in rural crime. When the proceeds of crime can end up in mainland Europe, co-ordination is essential. We must ensure that large machinery stolen on a Monday doesn’t end up across the Channel on a Tuesday.
  • We need to invest in 111 operator training so that complaints about serious rural crime are taken seriously. This training should also include updated Home Office and police guidance on how to best respond to rural threats. I am strongly encouraging the Government to also consider how the review into Police and Crime Commissioner powers can better serve rural communities.
  • We need to invest heavily in mental health in rural areas and think seriously about how we can best support victims. The NHS Long-Term Plan’s £2.3 billion for mental health is an excellent start, and some must go to improving services in rural areas.

The Government has already made landmark commitments to tackle crime, with 20,000 more police officers, a 2.5 per cent pay-rise, and targeted local investments. We have the momentum to truly transform rural policing, and rural lives, for the better. As we level up the nation, we must also level up on our approach to policing and protecting rural communities. I look forward to working with our strong Home Office and Justice Ministerial Teams, as well as our strong contingent of rural MPs to get justice for our communities and stamp out serious organised crime in our countryside.