Making a statement about the countryside
THE Autumn Statement is essentially broad brush. It was always so. The big numbers and big ideas give a direction of travel and it’s for the coming Budget to refine them into programmes for action. That’s why, for the countryside to be mentioned at all is a real bonus. We’re usually caught up with the urban economy, our special concerns lost in painting the big picture. This time, it was different. Doubling the rate relief for the village shops and pubs that make such a difference to rural life is really good news, as are the specific concerns about rural connectivity and the help for local transport. Given all the hype around infrastructure and the industrial strategy, this attention to rural matters was unexpected and very welcome.
Clearly, it’s not going to be easy to navigate the Brexit rocks and the Chancellor isn’t one for whistling in the wind. Although he’s signalled no further benefit cuts, he hasn’t been able to promise more for care in the community or for the NHS —that bus with the £350 million promise has clearly been taken off the road. However, borrowing is going up—not to finance current expenditure, but for real investment in our future. That’s a sensible decision when the interest rates paid by Government are practically nil. Mind you, we’ll need to get in quickly because failure to get a sensible deal with the EU will downgrade our status with the rating agencies and push up that cost considerably.
In any case, we country people will have to work hard to get our fair share of this infrastructure money. In England, there’s a large slice going to the devolved authorities and those are predominantly urban in character. Rural advocates will need to be seriously pushy if they’re not to be overlooked. The same principle obtains for digital investment, where rural MP Matthew Hancock is a key Minister. We’ll have to remind him constantly of the importance of connectivity for the thousands of established and emerging rural businesses. The countryside has always been a workplace and could now add even more to our national income, if only it can be better connected.
Growth in our rural areas takes some of the pressure off our towns and cities, where the Government has promised significant help to tackle the housing crisis. It’s encouraging that it’s now putting money where only its mouth has been for far too long.
However, these homes need to be in town and not slurped over the countryside as many of the house builders want. Sustainable housing means reusing already used land, in well-connected urban centres, close to amenities, shops and jobs. The land is there—it just needs to be released and used. House builders prefer a nice greenfield site, as they’re easier and cheaper, however, we mustn’t allow them to hijack this direct investment in housing—we must insist on decent, energy-efficient, truly urban homes. Of course, some affordable rural housing is also necessary because our villages will otherwise be unable to accommodate the working people our burgeoning small businesses need.
Those businesses also need encouragement, not just investment and a benevolent tax regime. It’s respect for the self-employed that has been the bedrock of our recent growth. The Chancellor made a mistake in linking the whole sector with tax avoidance. He must make it clear that most small businesses, urban and rural, are thoroughly decent contributors who should be honoured and not vilified.
‘Most small businesses, urban and rural, should be honoured and not vilified
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