Government must urgently rural proof its Autumn Statement

THE Rural Services Network has warned the government to ensure that rural communities don't miss out on measures contained in its Autumn Statement.

The network said it welcomed a number of measures announced by Chancellor Philip Hammond on 23 November – but said it was doubtful whether rural communities and businesses would benefit as much as they might.

Rural Services Network chief executive Graham Biggs said: "Additional funding for broadband, affordable housing and rural rent relief are all well and good – but it is far from clear that they will bring any tangible benefit.

"The government needs to do much more to ensure that its measures really and truly benefit rural communities – rather than simply being directed towards larger towns and cities."

Before the Autumn Statement, the Rural Services Network called for measures that boosted rural economic growth and productivity through better services and greater government investment in infrastructure.

The Autumn Statement included the following:

More than £1 billion by 2020/21 for digital infrastructure

Mr Biggs said: "It appears much of this money will be directed to urban centres when it should be used to fix what is a basic problem: many rural areas are still without broadband at a time when urban areas are receiving ever faster fibre-based connections.

"Rural properties which have slow broadband connections because they are a long way from a street cabinet could have their problems resolved if there was adequate investment in fibre-to-the-premises."

£1.4 billion extra for affordable housing

Mr Biggs said: "This funding appears to be additional capital grant for housing associations and equates to around £300m per year.

"Our concern is that this extra funding will end up being targeted almost exclusively at so-called 'affordable rent' properties and low-cost home ownership. Both measures are of some use, but will not address the problems facing rural residents who are least well off.

"We are calling for 20% of this amount – equivalent to £60m per year – to be invested in a dedicated Rural Housing Programme so there is a guaranteed benefit to rural communities."

The doubling of Rural Rate Relief from 50% to 100%.

Mr Biggs said: "In principle, this is a positive move for many rural shops and similar small businesses in the countryside, whose financial position is often marginal at best.

"But it is important that this extension of rural rate relief is fully funded by central Government and not by local councils. Many of these businesses have 100% relief already – 50% mandatory and 50% given discretionally by their local authority."

In conclusion, Mr Biggs said: "Other Autumn Statement announcements appear largely targeted at urban areas.

"This is extremely disappointing at a time when cuts in government funding are already putting unacceptable pressure on vital rural public services, forcing the withdrawal of rural public transport, health and social care.

"The increase in the National Living Wage is, of course, to be welcomed by those who receive it but it piles extra costs on councils and, for small rural business just about clinging on, it could push them over the top.

"Rural areas already receive less government funding and fewer public services than urban areas yet rural residents still have to pay higher council taxes out of a lower average income than their urban counterparts.

"This Autumn Statement does little if anything to redress the imbalance."


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