Ministers prepare to prime the parish pump

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The Government gave a new twist to the term "parish pump politics" yesterday with the introduction of legislation giving councils power to cut the rates of struggling village businesses, including the local pub.

Ministers' handling of the "mad cow" crisis has dented the Tories' traditional domination in rural areas. But the discretionary powers contained in the Local Government and Rating Bill could ensure that beef farmers are left with somewhere to go and drown their sorrows.

First priority in the village will be general stores and sub-post offices. There will be a mandatory duty on councils to give 50 per cent rate relief for stores and post offices with a rateable value of less than pounds 5,000 which are the only outlets in villages with a population of less than 3,000. The cost is estimated at pounds 15m.

But John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, emphasised that councils would also be able to help other businesses performing a social function, such as public houses or small garages.

The relief will come too late for many villages where the dual store- cum-post office has already closed. Others now open for only part of the week. With it, in an age where parish churches have closed or amalgamated in swaths, goes one of the few points of contact and gossip in isolated communities.

"The village shop is an important centre of all village life and I am determined to maintain it as far as possible," Mr Gummer said. "The nature of the distribution system in Britain means there are real competitive pressures to drive down margins. It does mean small retail outlets have a real problem and yet they play a role that is very important indeed in village life. They provide a service for the old and the young and those without access to a motor car that is absolutely crucial."

The bill also proposes wider powers for parish councils enabling them to take on responsibilities in the fields of community transport and crime prevention. It could mean parishes helping contribute to the cost of providing for neighbourhood police constables or setting up closed circuit television surveillance.

The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters was predictably delighted by the rates cut. Some 6,000 shops are expected to benefit to the tune of pounds 500 a year.

Parish councils were more equivocal,, pointing out that security measures would be a drain on resources and an urban intrusion in the countryside. The new transport role would enable villagers to set up car-sharing schemes and give taxi-fare concessions, but would also put pressure on council tax bills.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England welcomed the help for village shops but warned that even so they would not survive unless the Government resisted pressure for out-of-town shopping centres on green- field sites.

The CPRE was critical of a report issued by Mr Gummer describing progress on commitments made in last year's White Paper on the countryside. Ben Plowden, head of land-use policy for the council, said that the commitment to enhancing protection for the countryside outside special areas, such as national parks, appeared to have been forgotten. "This could have devasting consequences, given the unprecedented pressure that will arise from the Government's projection of 4.4 million new households by 2016," he said.