HC Deb 19 November 1996 vol 285 cc824-5
7. Mr. Ashton

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many district councils qualify for a sparsity allowance in their standard spending assessment. [3124]

Mr. Gummer

The SSA of every district council reflects sparsity, even where it has a significant urban population, so 14 per cent. of Bassetlaw's SSA comes to it because of sparsity factor.

Mr. Ashton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that sparsity allowance is essential for rural areas because of the extra costs of refuse collection and public transport, for example? When rural areas were Conservative controlled there was no danger of the allowance being abolished, but now the vast majority are controlled by Labour or the Liberals, is there not a great temptation for the Government to abolish it and use the cash for income tax cuts in next Tuesday's Budget? Will he assure us that that will not happen?

Mr. Gummer

I would like the hon. Gentleman to have a word with the Labour-controlled London boroughs and others who have long pressed for the abolition of sparsity factor. He may have noticed that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration and I have made it clear that recent research broadly supports the present sparsity rules. I have not made a final decision, but I think that it is unlikely that I will want to move from the present system when the evidence shows that it should remain. I wish that the hon. Gentleman would get his Labour friends to stop bashing the countryside.

Mr. John Greenway

My right hon. Friend and I represent rural areas. Does he agree that many of our constituents in the countryside and in rural villages do not enjoy the level of services that people in towns and cities take for granted? Is not that why the Local Government and Rating Bill's measures to protect the small village post office, general store, public house and garage are so popular with parish councils? Can we be sure that district councils will have sufficient sparsity factor in their standard spending assessments to be able to afford the much needed discretionary relief?

Mr. Gummer

I remind my hon. Friend that 75 per cent. of that money will come from the Exchequer. I also remind him of the Bill's Second Reading, when Labour's Front-Bench spokesmen showed that they knew little—and cared less—about rural matters.