There is a fundamental mismatch between the declared aims of this draft Strategy and the impact that its proposals would have on the majority of Shropshire’s population.
The declared aims are: “To increase participation for health benefit and regular participation amongst those who are inactive” (Page 1) and to create “strong market towns and re-balanced rural settlements with services which meet the needs of local people and access is easier developments” (Page 17).
A strategy that advocates putting all of Shropshire Council’s non-statutory service funding into just three of the largest towns (Ludlow, Shrewsbury and Oswestry), whose residents account for only a third of the county’s population, is in no way geared to “increase participation” or in any way constitutes an “access is easier development”. Re-directing resources from smaller towns does not make them “strong” and does not “re-balance rural settlements”, it further unbalances them. By making facilities less accessible, it undermines the commitment to promote sporting achievement in our young people and the promotion of health benefits for older people, particularly relevant to Church Stretton, given the elderly weighting of its population.
“The LDF has identified the need to develop more resilient rural areas….. Levels of deprivation tend to be higher in rural areas….. Dispersed population and long distances, combined with a high level of car ownership in rural areas makes it difficult to provide bus services that are economical and convenient. Improving accessibility… is a key challenge for Shropshire.” (Page 28) The recommendations in this report run directly counter to that challenge and would add to the county’s carbon footprint.
There also appears to be a bias in favour of the north of the county. It justifies “retaining as a priority” (Page 3) the pools in Market Drayton and Whitchurch on the grounds that they cannot access Oswestry or Shrewsbury in 30 minutes. However, no such additional provision is envisaged for the South, which has a much bigger spatial area than the North (Page 8), with larger areas outside a 30 minute access to Ludlow or Shrewsbury.
It is also far from clear on what basis the report recommends much more positive support for the SpArC pool in Bishops Castle than the Church Stretton pool, given that both “do not demonstrate financial viability in terms of the relationship between use and operational cost” (page 3). It cannot be on population size, or indeed the comparative numbers of primary schoolchildren using the pools. Bishops Castle has a population of 1,800 and Church Stretton 4671, wrongly stated to be 3,700 on Page 21 and “around 3000” on Page102, nor can it be on grounds of accessibility, as Church Stretton sits on the A49 corridor. The report recognises (Page 3) that the SpArC pool “is in a better condition and there could be more opportunity to work in partnership with a local community organisation” and recommends finding “alternative funding models for the Market Drayton and SpArC pools” (Page 6). Whereas, “the Church Stretton pool is in a very poor condition and does not offer a fit for purpose environment in which to learn.”(page 3). Unlike most other pools, it was the local community which raised the original funding for the pool. Since taking over responsibility for the pool, Shropshire Council has resolutely refused to invest any money in it.
Leaving that aside, the Quantitative Audit on Page 41 gives a rating of 68% and 61% (both Good) to the two centres and the useage figures for 2015/16 show 55,100 visits to SpArC at a cost to Shropshire Council of £1.95 per visit and 49,990 visits to Church Stretton at a cost to Shropshire Council of 87p per visit. It is then surprising that Church Stretton is singled out for its high cost (perhaps because of an unquantified “sinking fund contribution”?), when there are eight other centres with higher costs to Shropshire Council than Church Stretton (Page 103).
Given that Shropshire Council has a long tradition of multi-million pound investments in Shrewsbury and Oswestry in particular, using the county precept, it is hard to see the justification for this further impoverishment of the smaller market towns and more rural areas. The smaller market towns are already having to pay markedly higher council tax rates as a consequence of this past bias, as can be seen from the comparative Band D council tax rates for 2016/2017: Shrewsbury £39.89, Oswestry £69.92 and Ludlow £107.06, as compared to Church Stretton £160.02, Whitchurch £148.85 and Wem £146.32.
The report states (page 6) “Shropshire Council will need to work in partnership with those communities to support them in raising the necessary investment needed, if these pools are still needed by those local communities.” It is difficult to see what help Shropshire Council will provide, if there is no longer any financial subsidy.
If Shropshire Council truly adheres to the aims set out in this report, it will give serious consideration to a fundamental re-think of how funding is raised and applied to the provision of non-statutory services across this largely rural county. These proposals, if implemented, will make what is already a demonstrably unfair and inequitable distribution of local council taxes even worse.
The scale of the cut-backs, now required by central government, means that we are moving from a predominantly centralised system of funding local government services to one that has to become more localised. That will require a progressive shift in the balance of funding as between the county precept and the local precepts of town and parish councils. Such a shift will enable communities to determine for themselves the services which they wish to fund and, thus, make those services more immediately democratically accountable.
It is no longer tenable to expect the smaller towns and rural areas to subsidise the larger towns and then expect them to pay again, if they wish to retain any of these non-statutory services themselves. Shropshire Council has already implemented a variant of this “hub” model by concentrating funding for libraries (on six rather than three towns) and that has demonstrated the unworkability of Shropshire Council’s original expectation that the smaller market towns would be able to negotiate revenue contributions from “clusters” of surrounding parish councils. This leaves the smaller market towns, where libraries and sport and leisure facilities are located, in the worst position of all, in having to subsidise these facilities in the larger “hub” towns and receiving no assistance from surrounding parish councils, whose residents make use of their own towns’ services.
Unless the system is changed, these proposals will contribute to the ongoing undermining of the viability and resilience of the smaller communities in this county. Shropshire Council’s recent decision to defer implementation of these proposals until September 2017 allows time to engage in a debate about a fairer, more appropriate and democratically accountable system of funding local non-statutory services.