Tories switch aid to rural heartlands

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The Independent Online
THE Government is switching resources and effort to help the countryside as part of a new Conservative strategy to take on the Liberal Democrats in rural areas.

Ministers at the Department of the Environment have launched a series of measures designed to reassure traditional Tory supporters that the Government cares as much for rural communities as for inner cities.

The move marks a shift in thinking as the Conservative Party comes under increasing pressure in the South and South-west. Yesterday, the countryside minister, Tim Yeo, said: 'Great emphasis has been placed on inner cities and there is a group of people in rural areas who feel that we have not paid the same close attention to their needs. There is a message for us to convey to people in rural areas that we really understand their concerns.'

The DoE's three-prong strategy spans housing, planning and rural assistance. Senior Conservatives are also keen to draw together other aspects of rural policy, such as the Home Office's proposal for 'parish constables'.

For the first time in more than a decade, ministers have redrawn the map which allows applications to the Rural Development Commission for pounds 13m of 'seedcorn' aid. Subject to consultation, the expanded areas will include Devon, Somerset, Dorset, East Sussex, Suffolk and the Forest of Dean.

The department has also moved to defuse the row over village shops and post offices which erupted earlier this year when a Department of Social Security offer to pay benefits direct into bank accounts, rather than at post offices, provoked a fierce backlash.

Drafts of new planning guidance for town centre developments have been changed to take into account the threat from out-of-town shopping centres - not only to high streets, but also to villages. The final version stresses that developments must take into account the 'effect on the rural economy' and emphasises the role of village shops. In some cases, ministers will be given powers to intervene over developments that threaten to kill off village shops.

Another shift of emphasis has come in revisions to the capital allocation from the Housing Corporation's pounds 2bn annual budget. The department has increased from 5 to 6 per cent the amount of cash available for building in small settlements in rural areas.

Last May the Tories suffered disastrous results in the county elections in the face of big Liberal Democrat gains in the South and Home Counties.

Gillian Shephard was moved to the Ministry of Agriculture with a brief of reassuring the farming community that the Government understands its problems.

The move was welcomed by the National Farmers' Union, which had been critical of her predecessor, John Gummer.