By Joseph Willits
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In an article for the Daily Telegraph today, Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has written of the need to be "realistic about the challenges" and problems faced by rural communities and businesses. Such challenges, she said "have been exacerbated by over a decade of neglect". She wrote about the Government's pledge to fix both the north-south divide, and equally as important, the imbalance between rural and urban areas. The Government, she said, would "stand up for those communities that have found it difficult to have their voices heard until now".
Spelman attacked Labour's legacy in rural areas, citing the examples of "five rural post offices a week closed under the previous Government" and a 12times hike in fuel duty "hitting rural communities twice as hard as urban ones".
Writing ahead of the second day of the Oxford Farming Conference, Spelman said the Government would announce 14 Rural and Farming Networks each "creating a rural hotline straight to the heart of Government":
"These networks will give rural business and community leaders a direct link to me and my team to tell us their problems so we can find ways to help. This will give rural communities a clear say on how policy is developed so our most remote towns and villages can grow stronger and thrive. Real people, with real, practical, local knowledge, will have direct access to ministers, something sorely lacking over the last decade, and for which communities have suffered as a consequence."
Despite many people swapping the city for a more rural life, and others choosing to remain in the countryside, which Spelman described as "wonderful places to live", with the advantage of "being part of the spirit that exists within small communities", there often comes with it severe disadvantage.
"There are many things that people in most cities and towns take for granted. If you want to make a phone call when you’re out then your mobile is guaranteed a signal. If your children need to file homework on-line then access to a decent internet connection is at your finger tips. But not if you’re in the countryside with a deadzone of mobile and broadband coverage."
The Government had, Spelman wrote, already pledged £20 million "to extend superfast broadband to rural communities".
Whilst rural businesses are enduring the same financial crises and difficulties as any other, Spelman wrote that added to this was "a lack of business premises, fragmented business networks and infrastructure", making survival more difficult. Rural businesses, she said, already contribute £200billion to the British economy.
On November 1st, alongside George Osborne's Autumn Statement, a £164 million package of measures was announced in the Rural Economy Growth Review. Spelman said this would include:
- "£100 million to help small businesses improve their facilities, skills and increase competitiveness."
- "£15 million to create the new Rural Growth Networks to help rural areas overcome barriers to growth such as poor infrastructure, scarcity of business premises and lack of business networks. "
- "Rural businesses will also benefit from the £1 billion Business Finance Partnership, announced by the Chancellor, which will invest in mid-sized businesses and SMEs through non-bank channels."