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I am sorry to be following Roberta Blackman-Woods because there are good things in the Budget. She should encourage her constituents to enjoy—responsibly, of course—cider and beer.
Wednesday’s Budget was the latest in a series of announcements from which my constituents will directly benefit. I strongly welcome the Chancellor’s measures to assist the cider industry. I was delighted by the removal of the escalator and the freezing of duty on almost all ciders, which will provide much-needed relief for an industry that represents a real success story for British business. Cider production is powered by British raw materials and British workers making a product for British consumers. The average pint will now be 3p lower than under Labour’s previous proposals.
I am glad that the Chancellor recognises that this has been a testing time for the 7,500 people employed by the cider industry. The impact of heavy flooding on this year’s crop of cider apples is yet to be seen, but I know that many fear the worst because prosperous growing areas were some of the worst hit by the floods. I hope that we will see continued support for this industry, which is one of the biggest employers in my constituency and an essential contributor to the pub sector.
North Herefordshire boasts 132 pubs and 11 breweries. The pub sector is a great supporter of local communities. It invests approximately £1.1 million locally and provides various employment opportunities, including 254 direct jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds.
The fact that pubs and many other businesses in North Herefordshire are taking on new employees is a clear indication that our long-term economic plan is working. Beer is 8p a pint cheaper than it would have been under the previous Labour Government’s plans. In
February, the number of unemployed claimants in North Herefordshire was 862, which is 282 fewer than in February 2013. That means that 282 people are now working thanks to the Government’s measures.
A further testament to progress is the success that the apprenticeship scheme is achieving in rural businesses. The benefit brought to local businesses by new apprentices in North Herefordshire has been a boost of more than £1.7 million in the last year. The benefits from the scheme are twofold: each business that hires an apprentice experiences an average benefit of £2,207; and youth unemployment in North Herefordshire is down, with just 250 18 to 24-year-old jobseeker’s allowance claimants.
I also welcomed the news from the Chancellor of the doubling of the annual investment allowance, which will be warmly welcomed by the farming community. Farming is a highly intensive industry that requires expensive specialist gear. I hope that the announcement will provide an incentive for investment in equipment so that British farms can remain as efficient as our competitors.
Despite those improvements, I appreciate the frustration of farmers in my constituency who still feel that they face an uphill struggle for similar funding to that enjoyed by urban businesses. Their unincorporated businesses are not able to benefit from the Chancellor’s corporation tax reduction. I have previously voiced my concerns in the House about the raw deal that rural communities receive on Government funding. Sparsity of population makes it far more expensive to provide services in areas such as North Herefordshire, yet urban areas still receive 50% more funding per head. The Government need to recognise there that is still a disparity in the calculation of local government finance but, to give credit where it is due, I am delighted that the disparity in school funding has been addressed. The change to allocating funds on the basis of individual schools’ needs and character is a common-sense measure that is greatly to be welcomed. The previous Labour Government based funding only on historical levels of spending, and the fact that that mechanism was allowed to continue for so long was detrimental to thousands of pupils in my constituency. However, our schools will now receive £2.6 million more per school year, so I thank my colleagues who have campaigned hard on this, especially my hon. Friend Mr Walker. Unfortunately, in several other ways, rural communities still require far more Government funding to provide essential services.
Road maintenance is a key concern for all rural constituencies and I know that such areas will be delighted with the extra £200 million that has been allocated to that in the Budget. Potholes are a menace and a danger, especially to those who live in isolated areas. The extent of the damage to roads in North Herefordshire is reflected by the fact that it received the highest allocation of repair funds in the west midlands. The damage has been aggravated this winter, but the overall standard of rural roads is very poor. I hope that the Government will maintain the new funding to address widespread pothole problems. I also look forward to the publication in the near future of the Government’s guidance on council applications for more highways funding.
I have set out just a snapshot of how the Government have made positive progress for my constituents, including the Exchequer Secretary’s mother-in-law. The Budget continues the already good progress that has been made to address the imbalance between rural and urban communities. I urge the Government to continue to bear in mind the specific needs of our hard-working rural communities when they allocate future funds. We cannot afford to allow our vital countryside communities to be ignored and underfunded purely because of their rural location.