by David Bean

Heavily trailed as a proclamation of doom, there was much within this Autumn Statement to offer relief to rural Britain. Principally the capital budget has been protected, meaning no change to current plans to continue the rollout of the better broadband and 5G connections that are so vital for rural businesses and households, and the continuation of levelling-up funding that the Countryside Alliance has consistently argued must account fully for rural needs.

We welcome the increase in energy bill support for households not connected to the gas grid, with the payment to those reliant on alternative fuels doubling to £200 and additional payments made available for the most vulnerable. The energy price guarantee continuing beyond April, although with the level increased from £2,500 to £3,000, offers some further respite from escalating costs. Energy efficiency is a particular headache in rural areas, which often suffer from an older, draughtier housing stock. We would expect the newly announced Energy Efficiency Taskforce to pay particular attention to these dwellings and the Government to prioritise them when allocating grants.

With business rates set to rise in April following revaluation there is some comfort in the announcement of a 5-year, £13.6 billion transition fund and in the freezing of the rates multiplier in 2023-24. We welcome the specific support that has been announced for the retail, hospitality and leisure sector, which provides a lifeline for rural areas reliant on tourism, with relief rates raised from 50% to 75% up to £110,000, and for small businesses losing eligibility for relief whose increase in annual bills will be capped at £600.

It was disappointing the Chancellor did not address fuel duty which was cut by 5p in the Spring Statement until March 2023. Rural households are more dependent on their car to access basic services and commute and so any increase in fuel prices impact them disproportionately. Research by the Countryside Alliance shows that rural households were having to spend nearly £800 a year more on fuel than people who live in urban areas. Looking ahead to the next Budget the Countryside Alliance anticipates campaigning to maintain this lower rate, and ideally cut it further still, so that rural residents reliant on cars in the absence of viable public transport can keep moving.

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