White paper offers stick and carrot to revitalise rural areas

30 Nov 00
Public services in rural areas, including education, social care, transport and post offices, face an annual audit to ensure they are meeting minimum performance targets.

01 December 2000

Benchmarks that attempt to halt the continued closure of rural schools, ensure emergency services respond to urgent incidents within set times and allow claimants to recover travel costs after visiting benefit offices were all included in the government's rural white paper published this week.

Standards will be policed by the Countryside Agency, headed by the government's new 'rural advocate', Ewen Cameron. Services that fail to come up to scratch will be publicly named in the annual audit. Further penalties seem to have been ruled out, but Cameron and ministers deny they will be toothless. 'We are committed to ensuring these targets will be met,' he said.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said the ultimate test to ensure that improvements were being met would be through the 'ballot box'.

And Pat Aston, chairman of the Local Government Association's Rural Commission, said the new benchmarks would provide 'challenges to local service providers'.

The paper, published on November 28, outlined a £1bn package to improve life in rural areas, although much of this was money already announced in the 2000 Spending Review.

Major measures include a commitment to remove the 50% council tax discount on second homes, a 50% rate cut for village shops, pubs and garages, £100m towards health care centres and £270m for investment in rural post offices.

Parish councils will be given a greater say in local planning and the number of new 'social homes' built will double to 3,000 a year.

James Tickell, deputy chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said this last measure would mean more affordable homes for local people.

Labour, which has more MPs in rural areas than the Tories, will be hoping the white paper will allow them to retain key marginals in the General Election.

Labour received qualified backing from the Countryside Alliance, a vociferous critic of its rural policies. But chief executive Richard Burge was sceptical about the amount of money being made available and whether the process for ensuring standards would be met.


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