Mixed bag from Chancellor for the rural sector

The Chancellor's measures to stimulate the economy have been met with mixed reactions from countryside groups.

Chancellor Philip Hammond. Pic: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Many of the policies in Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement should create “real benefits” for rural communities, the Countryside Alliance said, though the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said policy announcements fell short of helping farm businesses “maximise their potential”.

A £1bn investment in superfast broadband by 2020 was welcomed but the Countryside Alliance said the Government must get the basics right first, with some rural areas still without 3G and 4G network access.

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Sarah Lee, the Alliance’s head of policy, said: “One of the most important announcements for rural communities is the commitment to invest £1bn in broadband and mobile technologies.

“However, it’s important the Government does not lose sight of the fact that only 42 per cent of premises in rural areas currently have access to the proposed Universal Service Obligation speed of 10Mbs per second. If our rural communities are going to be able to embrace all the opportunities that new technology provides then it is vital that we get the basics first.”

Tim Price, rural affairs specialist at rural insurer NFU Mutual, said: “Let’s hope the Chancellor’s announcement of 100 per cent tax relief on companies providing fibre optic services will help get decent broadband to more rural areas and enable them to join the modern business world.”

The NFU’s director of policy Andrew Clark said he was keen to see what the investment will mean for the remaining five per cent of households, most of which are in rural areas, that are unable to access adequate digital infrastructure.

Mr Clark added: “While there are some positive measures, it is disappointing the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement fell short of delivering measures that will enable our farm businesses to maximise their potential.

“The Chancellor’s planned reduction to the rate of Corporation Tax, while providing benefits to the supply chain, does little to help the majority of farm businesses that are unincorporated. The National Living Wage rate will be increased to £7.50 per hour in April 2017.

“The NFU strongly supports a living wage for all workers but we have expressed to government our concerns about the speed of the implementation. Accelerating increases will make this even more difficult for employers and we remain concerned about the lack of consultation with the agricultural and horticultural sector.”

Ms Lee said the pledge to double rural rate relief to 100 per cent from April next year was a pleasing development.

“We also welcome the emphasis the Chancellor placed on the need for smaller scale developments on the edge of existing settlements,” Ms Lee added.

Sean McCann, chartered financial planner at NFU Mutual, said there was little in the statement to help struggling farmers or boost the rural economy but their were some “nuggets” that farmers can use to their benefit, namely, simpler
tax rules for making withdrawals from savings and an increase in tax-free personal tax allowance which will put more money in the pockets of taxpayers.