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The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"Rural life is in decline"
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The BBC's Jonathan Beale
"A clear attempt to reassure rural dwellers that [the government] is not obsessed with pleasing fashionable urbanites"
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Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 19:21 GMT
Prescott's boost for rural living
English fields
Labour proposes to help farmers diversify their businesses
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has confirmed local authorities will get the power to charge full council tax on second homes.

Unveiling his rural white paper, he put rural housing and transport at the top of the government's agenda.

Mr Prescott conceded that countryside communities had suffered problems which were getting worse.

He said: "Much of rural Britain is thriving but there are real problems and many of them have got worse over the last 20 years."

Rural white paper
100m for primary health care centres
270m to turn post offices into one-stop shops
Mandatory rate relief to more village shops, pubs and garages
Reform planning rules to help farmers diversify
15m community service fund to support local enterprise
The measures in the white paper include the creation of affordable homes for rural residents, financial help for communities setting up initiatives to link buses and trains and extra funds for public transport.

Currently, second homes owners get a 50% discount on second properties which often tend to be located in rural localities forcing up house prices for local people.

Now local authorities will be able to charge the full rate with the extra revenue to be ringfenced for rural housing.

The move could cost a quarter of a million second home owners an average of about 350 a year.

The proposal was welcomed by the Liberal Democrats' housing spokesman Adrian Sanders.

Much of rural Britain is thriving but there are real problems and many of them have got worse over the last 20 years

John Prescott
He said a discretionary power to abolish the 50% council tax was "good news for rural communities" but warned the announcement must be followed by legislation.

Mr Prescott also proposed town and parish councils would get 7m to become "quality" councils, with 1,000 of them producing town and village plans and all of them being linked up to the internet.

But Nigel Waterson MP, the Conservative's local government spokesman, said the proposals proved Labour's "lack of knowledge about the countryside".

Pilot scheme

Turning to the wider problems faced in the countryside, Mr Prescott said difficulties in rural areas could not be looked at in isolation from those in urban areas.

He announced a pilot scheme in 280 Leicestershire post offices to provide a range of services including one-stop shops and cashpoints.

The closure of rural post offices, often seen as the heart of rural communities, has been a contentious issue in recent years.

Mr Prescott said 100m would be put towards mobile health units in rural areas.

Under the life of this government some 50,000 farmers will in all probability lose their livelihoods for good

Archie Norman

The white paper comes two weeks after the government announced measures to regenerate inner-city areas.

It may have a crucial effect on the fortunes of the many Labour MPs elected in 1997 who hold marginal rural or semi-rural seats.

High suicide rate

Tory environment spokesman Archie Norman said the government had presided over "unprecedented crisis in farming" which might see 50,000 farmers lose their livings during the parliament.

He said: "Under the life of this government some 50,000 farmers will in all probability lose their livelihoods for good. The suicide rate among farmers is the highest on record."

He questioned whether the white paper would do anything to "address the guts of that crisis" and accused Mr Prescott of not caring about the countryside.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said earlier the countryside should be represented in Cabinet by a secretary of state for rural affairs.

In the Commons, the party's environment spokesman, Don Foster, said the Lib Dems "unequivocally welcomed the broad thrust" of the white paper.

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See also:

27 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Blair seeks to win over countryside
16 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Urban regeneration boost unveiled
17 May 00 | UK Politics
Warning over post office closures
18 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Labour MPs unveil rural manifesto
27 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Prescott seeks to calm summit row
28 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Fox hunting season opens
28 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Rural white paper at a glance
28 Nov 00 | Talking Politics
Clash of the Titans
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