The Audit Commission reports that only 44 per cent of three and four-year-olds in the shires had a place in a council-run nursery in 199697. In Wiltshire and West Sussex only one in four had a place.
Under-fives in metropolitan areas outside London - Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands, West and South Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear - were most likely to have a council place, at 74 per cent.
Only 57 per cent of the capital's pre-school children were covered and only 69 per cent in the new unitary authorities. The national average was 60 per cent, but some councils may find it difficult to meet demand. "All councils will need to plan carefully to avoid disappointing parents who will now expect council-funded education for their four-year-old children," the report says.
Cost varies hugely, from pound;1,500 per child in some authorities to pound;3,000 in others. It is highest in the inner cities, partly because of the problem of high numbers of children who speak little or no English. But even in inner-London, cost can vary by half.
The figures are only a rough indicator of the challenge facing ministers. Like the Conservatives, Labour's pledge covers only four-year-olds in the short term.
And like the Tories, it wants a mix of provision, with many children going to registered private or voluntary-run nurseries, neither of which are included. The report admits: "Some councils with very low levels of direct nursery provision may be funding significant numbers of places in the private and voluntary sectors."
The figures show the variation in provision in the run-up to the Tories' voucher scheme. Despite the high profile, places increased nationally by only 2 per cent between 199495 and 199697.
Council provision fell in some authorities, including Wigan and Doncaster where places were cut by almost 20 per cent. Falls of more than 10 per cent were also reported in Sunderland, Derbyshire and Suffolk, but the commission says these figures are unreliable.