Little rural cheer from latest Budget

RURAL communities are unlikely to benefit from the government's latest budget, stakeholders have warned.

Plans to increase fuel duty are especially likely to hit rural residents and businesses hardest, believe community leaders.

The feeling is that any beneficial measures putting cash in people's pockets will be offset by detrimental actions that will take money out of the rural economy.

Measures announced by Chancellor George Osborne to MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday (21 March) included:

     * Confirmation of a fall in public spending beyond 2015;

     * Plans to raise vehicle excise duty by 3p per litre in August;

     * The National Planning Policy Framework to be unveiled on Tuesday (27 March);

     * Funding for faster broadband for the UK's 10 largest cities

With cuts to local government funding set to continue until 2017, the Local Government Association said pressure was mounting in costly service areas such as adult social care, children's safeguarding and road maintenance.

LGA chairman Sir Merrick Cockrell said: "Councils have to make tough decisions on how they prioritise spending on the 800 services they provide to residents.

"That includes deciding whether or not to shield some services from budget cuts by increasing council tax revenue.

"These decisions must be based on local priorities and councillors know they will be judged solely by the people they represent when the votes are cast in local elections."

Barney White-Spunner, executive chairman of the Countryside Alliance, described the decision not to freeze duty as a slap in the face.

"The budget will have brought small comfort to rural Britain," he said. "It is clear that the rural economy has been overlooked by the Chancellor."

The rise in duty this autumn would force rural drivers and rural businesses to make tough choices about using their vehicles, said Mr White-Spunner.

The alliance broadly supported a simplified tax system for small rural businesses and the extension of mobile coverage to 60,000 rural homes.

But Mr White-Spunner warned: "Both measures amount to little more than a drop in the ocean when it comes to reviving the rural economy.

Rural areas were crying out for more to be done to bring fast and reliable broadband to the countryside's notspots, he added.

Major funding had been announced by the government 18 months ago but there was very little evidence of any progress to date.

Mr Osborne had now announced funding for 'ultra-fast' broadband for ten UK cities – ignoring the plight of rural families and businesses on slow connections.

The Country Land and Business Association said it was looking forward to the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Refocusing planning policy to support growth in rural areas would come as a breath of fresh air to businesses based in the countryside, it said.

But the Campaign to Protect Rural England described the chancellor's rhetoric as "misguided and dangerous".

CPRE spokesman Adam Royle said: If the Government undermines sound planning, it will put sustainable economic growth at risk.

"Countries like Germany show that good economic performance and strong planning systems can go hand in hand."


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