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A Tough Budget for the Countryside

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A simple stat for you to start: there are four mentions of 'rural' in the Budget document released by the Treasury today (available here) and 13 for 'cities'.

Although there is absolutely nothing empirical to derive from that fact, it does serve to highlight that the budget George Osborne delivered today was not one for the countryside.

Sure there were a few fillips thrown to the rural economy to keep it ticking over - extending mobile coverage to 60,000 rural homes and revealing the location of the Rural Growth Networks announced at the Autumn Statement last year - but overall it's clear that the chancellor was focussed primarily on urban growth.

In some cases that focus becomes faintly ludicrous. In December 2011 the Countryside Alliance conducted research on the pace of the Government's £500 million rural broadband roll-out. Using FOI requests we established that the four pilot areas announced by George Osborne in his first pre-budget report in 2010 had barely received any cash from the Treasury for their broadband projects, and certainly hadn't started producing faster connections for residents.

Now, 18 months on from that announcement, rather than tackling the snail pace of the roll-out in the countryside, George Osborne has instead found £100 million to make the very decent speed of broadband in 10 UK cities 'ultra-fast'.

Yet again, the Chancellor decided to set new planning regulations as a tool for 'growth', rather than as a sensible simplification of a set of rules that had grown out of control. The revised 'National Planning Policy Framework' will be announced next Tuesday, but (as I wrote here last week) it seems that the much-hated and totally unnecessary 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' is here to stay.

But the most painful and ill-judged strike at the heart of the rural economy is the Chancellor's decision not to reverse the planned fuel rise in August. Countryside Alliance research in February found that drivers filling up in rural petrol stations are already paying on average 4p more than their urban counterparts for every litre, sometimes rising as high as seven or eight pence in certain areas. To not prevent that cost from rising even further basically wipes out the savings from other initiatives such as raising the personal tax allowance in one fell swoop.

The countryside is used to having its problems ignored - for 13 years a Labour Government whose MPs were almost exclusively concentrated in urban areas did just that at budget after pre-budget. But people in rural areas can legitimately have hoped for a little more from the Coalition today.

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