David Cameron is under pressure to end years of under-funding for the countryside as more than 100 protest petitions demanding a fairer deal for rural communities will be presented in the Commons today.
Some 26 coalition MPs will convene in Parliament this afternoon to demand the massive gap between council grants given to rural and urban councils is finally closed in next month’s local authority spending settlement.
The petitions have been collected in 119 rural constituencies across the country, including Mr Cameron’s own seat of Witney in Oxfordshire, as well as most across Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset.
The latest whiff of rebellion represents a significant show of opposition in the Tory shires, which have grown increasingly dissatisfied with Mr Cameron over recent years.
At the heart of the campaign are figures from the Rural Services Network which show that on average, rural councils receive 50% less money per head than their urban counterparts due to the Government’s skewed funding formula.
Sir Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon, who will present a petition, said: “This is crunch time in the fight for a better deal for rural authorities.
“In my North Devon constituency the council has already had their total budget cut by a third since 2010. It is impossible to go any further without affecting local services.
“This unfairness cannot go on. The Government have previously brought in a number of measures to cushion the impact on rural authorities, but it is high time for bold action to change a funding system which is biased and unfair.”
Yorkshire Tory backbencher Mr Stuart, who chairs the Rural Fair Share campaign in Westminster, said rural areas have “higher costs, lower incomes and more elderly populations”.
He added: “Rural councils provide fewer services to a typically more-needy population, and at a higher cost to that population, because of inequalities in the central government grant.”
New figures show that rural councils lost £135m this year due to the Government’s failure to fully implement its last review of the funding formula, which was supposed to address the difficulties rural councils face in serving the needs of a population spread sparsely across a large area.
Key services have been slashed across rural areas thanks to the coalition cuts since 2010.
Mr Stuart has dubbed the huge funding gap the “rural penalty”, blaming a Government formula which directs extra money to areas with high levels of deprivation.
“If you started with a blank piece of paper, you would recognise the needs of concentrations of deprivation in cities – but you would also recognise the high cost of elderly populations, and the cost of delivery of services in sparsely-populated areas,” he said.
“You just have to think – how much does it cost to empty the bins?”
In a backbench Commons debate last month Labour’s new local government spokesman, Andy Sawford, said he accepts the current system is unfair, and pledged to overhaul the formula if his party wins the next election.
“We will make the formula fairer,” Mr Sawford said.
Mr Stuart’s success in securing nearly 100 MPs as “patrons” for his campaign and collecting large numbers of signatures in 119 different constituencies means it now wields significant backbench clout, however.
Among the 119 are the constituencies of Bridgwater and West Somerset, Camborne and Redruth, Central Devon, East Devon, North Cornwall, North Devon, Somerton and Frome, South Dorset, South East Cornwall, South West Devon, St Austell and Newquay, St Ives, Taunton Deane, Tiverton and Honiton, Torbay, Torridge and West Devon, Totnes, Truro and Falmouth, West Dorset and Yeovil.
Campaigners hope the threat of a major backbench rebellion when the next council finance settlement comes to the Commons for a vote next year may be enough to convince the Prime Minister to step in.
So far, those calls have fallen on deaf ears. Mr Cameron said last month: “I think we’ve been fair between urban and rural areas.”
Nonetheless, the Prime Minister is acutely aware of trouble in the Tory heartland areas.
The Countryside Alliance revealed last week that the proportion of its membership planning to vote Conservative at the next election has fallen dramatically.
The rural pressure group lists a series of grievances including the proliferation of onshore wind turbines and the failure to repeal the hunting ban.
Mr Cameron has shown signs over recent months of listening more closely to the rural lobby, hinting at a possible relaxation of the hunting ban and promising a review of schools funding to provide more money for small village schools.
Andrew George, Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, presented his petition last week. He said: “Cornwall is one of the poorest regions in the UK and it receives unfair levels of funding.”
Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis insisted the Government is still prepared to consider the matter of council financing over the weeks to come.
“I have heard the clear and passionate comments that have been made,” he said.