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Last Updated: Monday, 2 August, 2004, 14:25 GMT 15:25 UK
Counting the cost of country life
Rural view
Sparse highlights the "higher cost" of delivering rural services
Council tax payers end up paying more for the essential services provided by their local authorities, according to lobby group Sparse.

For many rural dwellers, that means there is little or nothing of their council tax money left to spend on the extra services that councils in urban areas can afford to provide for their local residents.

BBC News Online looks at where the money goes and why people in the countryside are paying more for less.

Richard Hall lives in a small group of houses three miles from his nearest town, Tyrley, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire.

He told BBC News Online: "We have our dustbin emptied weekly and get a fortnightly visit from a mobile library.

"We have no mains water, gas or sewerage.

"If the road is snowed in it is cleared by the local farmer so that the milk tanker can get in to collect his milk."

We pay the same rates as all of the other residents of the borough in the same council tax band
Richard Hall

As a pensioner, Mr Hall is entitled to a bus pass - but the nearest bus is half an hour drive away.

"We have a similar drive to use any of the other council provided facilities such as swimming pools, sports centres, museums et cetera," he told BBC News Online.

"For this we pay the same rates as all of the other residents of the borough in the same council tax band."

So where is the hard-earned cash of Mr Hall and other countryside council-tax payers like him going?

One out of every two pounds paid in council tax is spent on education.

With fewer children spread over wider catchment areas, village schools have much higher costs per pupil.

Elderly people are increasing in number in areas like Lincolnshire that are very popular for retirement

The costs of building, equipping and heating a school with 100 pupils might not be significantly lower than those for one with 1,000, Jon McLeod, of the Sparsity Partnership for Authorities delivering Rural Services, told BBC News Online.

The cost of "home-to-school transport" is significantly higher in the countryside, where families live much further apart.

The government has a policy commitment to keeping village schools open, Mr McLeod added.

But it is rural council tax payers who are picking up the bill.

Of the council tax cash not spent on education, half is swallowed up by social services.

Here too the costs in the countryside can be "incredibly expensive" compared with those in urban areas, Mr McLeod told BBC News Online.

"Elderly people are increasing in number in areas like Lincolnshire that are very popular for retirement.

"And if an elderly person with diabetes needs an insulin injection before every meal, that could mean three journeys of 20 minutes each.

"In more densely populated urban areas, the travel time is much less."

That means, as well as spending more on petrol, rural local authorities need to employ more carers, Mr McLeod added.

Although unemployment levels might be lower in the countryside than in some inner-city areas, the "incredibly low" wages paid by many rural employers mean many of the working population are also claiming benefits.

Of the council tax not set aside for education or social services, more than half is used to fund waste management.

Sparse areas average: 1,265
England average: 1,355
Inner London average: 1,965
Source: Sparse

Although rural local authorities may spend less on cleaning the streets, the challenge of collecting and recycling the rubbish of people living along narrow country lanes is "extremely complicated and time-consuming and incredibly expensive", Mr McLeod told BBC News Online.

The remaining statutory services - which have to be provided by councils before they can look at giving their local residents that little bit extra for their money - include child protection, electoral registration, and dealing with planning applications.

Even these can be more costly and complex in the countryside, where the population is dispersed and there are more areas of natural beauty and scientific interest to protect, Mr McLeod said.

That leaves many rural local authorities little or nothing of their council tax money to spend on the discretionary services - conservation, tourism, sport, leisure, and the arts.

"Authorities can either increase their council tax or spend less on their discretionary services," Mr McLeod told BBC News Online.

"And most end up doing both."

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