Rural productivity driven by hi-tech boost and better roads

Productivity could grow faster in the countryside than urban areas over the next decade, with a rise in rural jobs, thanks to a high-tech boost from speedier broadband and better transport links, a new analysis has shown.

Increased connectivity, spread of innovation, growth in knowledge-based industries and changes in working patterns are expected to help rural areas catch up with urban areas over the next decade, contributing to the government’s long-term economic plan.

This is expected to deliver higher wages and output of rural areas could potentially increase by around an extra £35 billion.

Increased economic rural opportunities could increase rural employment in England by 6% – or more than 300,000 jobs.

The drivers of growth include:

  • improved transport links – the government recently announced £15bn investment in national roads infrastructure. This includes £2 billion to dual the entire A303 and A358 to the south west and build a tunnel at Stonehenge, allowing road users to drive on a dual carriageway from London to within 15 miles of Land’s End.
  • superfast broadband rollout – by 2017 public investment of £1.7 billion will see 95% of UK premises gain access to superfast speeds with work ongoing to identify suitable options to connect the remaining 5% hard to reach areas.
  • tackling mobile phone ‘partial not-spots’ – the government has secured a binding agreement with the mobile networks EE, O2, Three and Vodafone to tackle poor signal issues in so-called ‘partial not-spots’. This includes a £5bn investment programme from the mobile networks to improve mobile infrastructure with guaranteed voice and text coverage from each operator across 90 per cent of the UK by 2017.
  • changes to working practices – according to research a growing group of around 2 million people are choosing to live in rural areas and work from home, thanks to improved connectivity. Other benefits would include shorter commuting times and increased productivity.

Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss said:

“This is a truly exciting time for rural communities with the countryside set to become even more of an economic powerhouse for the UK, building our economic security.

“Improved infrastructure is a great driver of change and our investment in broadband and transport links, together with improved mobile phone signals, is unlocking the huge potential for growth in the countryside where entrepreneurial activity is outstripping many parts of the UK.

“Whether you’re in a cottage in Cornwall or a small business in one of our great national parks, you are better connected now than ever before – ultimately that means greater opportunities, more jobs and improved wages and a better future.”

The analysis, produced by Defra, shows that although currently workers in rural areas in England are 83% as productive as those in urban areas it suggests rural productivity has the potential to grow faster than the average expected rate for the UK, allowing the countryside to gain ground on towns over the course of a decade.

People living in the countryside are more likely to run their own businesses than people in towns. It is already home to a quarter of all businesses, despite only around 18% of people living in rural areas. Among the fastest growing sectors have been knowledge-based industries like IT and consultancy.

Increasingly, rural entrepreneurs are getting better connected into markets in Britain and around the world, like those living in towns and cities, with improvements to superfast broadband connections and mobile phone signals.

41 million wills available to search online for the first time

The government’s archive of 41 million wills dates back to 1858 and will enable people to find out more about their family histories, as well as researching the last wishes of some of the most influential people of the 19th and 20th century.

As a result of the innovative project carried out by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and storage and information management company Iron Mountain, people will be able to connect to history from the comfort of their own home and look up the wills of people such as:

  • the mathematician Alan Turing whose life story has been told in the film The Imitation Game
  • Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist author Charles Dickens
  • Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill
  • Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter

This project is a great example of how the government is opening up public services. It means requests can be dealt with quickly and without people needing to visit the probate registry to search archives in person.

Courts Minister Shailesh Vara said:

This fascinating project provides us with insights into the ordinary and extraordinary people who helped shape this country, and the rest of the world.

It is a fantastic resource not only for family historians but also for anyone with an interest in social history or famous figures.

I am delighted that HMCTS are leading the way in innovation and are helping deliver a more modern and efficient public service.

Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, creator of some of the world’s most well-known fictional characters including Christmas favourite Ebenezer Scrooge, left a handwritten will in an attractive cursive script.

The writer George Orwell, who died in 1950, insisted that all his notes, manuscripts, pamphlets, press cuttings and other documents be preserved; while the economist John Keynes, who died in 1946, wanted most of his personal papers and unpublished manuscripts to be destroyed.

Alan Turing, the mathematician and cryptologist who cracked the Enigma code died of cyanide poisoning in 1954 aged just 41. Turing left a brief will sharing his possessions equally among a cherished group of colleagues and his mother.

The creator of Winnie the Pooh, A. A. Milne, who died in 1956, left a share of future royalties and copyright to his favourite London club and Westminster School, while the creator of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter, left a long and generous will that reflected her passion for natural science and conservation.

Phil Greenwood, Commercial Director at Iron Mountain said:

The completion of this phase of our work with HMCTS marks a significant milestone in a project to help deliver services online. The size of the archive is both humbling and impressive. Every will among the 41 million is a precious historical document that can provide remarkable insight into generations of lives lived and lost. The wills offer us a unique glimpse of individuals in their roles as father or mother, friend or colleague. The online availability of the wills is a welcome opportunity for anyone wishing to add detail to their family history.

It gives the general public, here and overseas, the chance to get closer to their ancestors. The ease of access enabled by technology is matched by careful preservation of the original paper records. These are and will remain in trust for future generations in a secure, temperature-controlled environment.

The availability of the database of 41 million wills follows the first stage of opening up the archive when soldiers’ wills were made available in 2013.

Since then there have been more than 2 million searches of the site showing people’s considerable interest in family history. The latest phase in the programme means that people can now request a specific will online and receive an electronic copy within 10 working days.

Creating the wills archive is part of ongoing work to transform HMCTS to make it a modern, efficient, digital service which is easy for the public to access.

More than 150 cases have been filmed in the Court of Appeal since the government changed the law to allow court broadcasting in 2013 and £160 million is being invested in digital technology for courtrooms including video links, wifi and improved IT systems to end the system’s reliance on paper.

Millions wasted as people don’t spend gift vouchers

As much as £300 million worth of gift vouchers bought this year could go unspent according to research by the UK Gift Card and Voucher Association (UKGCVA). Liberal Democrat Consumer Affairs Minister Jo Swinson is today (27 December 2014) urging consumers to spend and enjoy any vouchers they get for Christmas before they expire.

Every year 6% of vouchers bought by consumers go unused as they lay forgotten in people’s wallets and drawers.

In 2013 some £2.5 billion worth of gift cards and vouchers were sold in UK retail stores as gifts and £2.25 billion were purchased by businesses as staff or customer rewards. Meanwhile a UKGCVA report shows that in the third quarter of 2014, the gift card and voucher industry grew by 10%. The UK industry as a whole is now worth £5 billion.

Consumer Affairs Minister Jo Swinson said:

Cards and vouchers are a popular gift choice at this time of year, but many people do not even realise that there is an expiry date and fail to check the details. Hundreds of millions of pounds is going unspent, which means consumers are losing out.

I would urge people to look carefully at the terms and conditions on the voucher or gift card and if it is not perfectly clear how long it is valid for, they should contact the retailer who issued it so that they know when they need to use it by. It is a real shame to miss out on a gift because a card or voucher is left hidden in a drawer.

Modern technology may provide the answer as digital vouchers, such as those that can be loaded on to a mobile phone, are becoming more popular according to the UKGCVA, and may be more likely to be used because the recipient does not have to remember to take a physical piece of plastic or paper with them to the shops.

Andrew Johnson, Director-General of the UK Gift Card & Voucher Associations said:

Whilst money does of course go unspent on gift cards and vouchers due to them being left in drawers or forgotten about, it is important to note that retailers actually prefer customers to spend their gift cards and vouchers, as opposed to leaving them unspent. Firstly, people using gift cards spend 40% more than the value of the voucher on purchases in store or online. Secondly, gift cards and vouchers provide multiple benefits to retailers, such as introducing new customers and increasing footfall.

The majority of customers spend vouchers within the first 3 to 6 months of receiving them and it is important to remember that the vast majority of consumers that use their gift vouchers do have a positive experience of the process, and greatly value the flexibility and choice that this option provides.

To make sure that you get the most out of your gift voucher you should:

  • check the expiry date and the terms and conditions – if it is not clear, ask for clarification and don’t be afraid to challenge the retailer if things are still unclear
  • when passing on as a gift – make sure that you point out the value, terms and conditions, and in particular the expiry date
  • remember they are like cash and make sure you keep them in a safe place
  • ask for an extension even if they have expired – sometimes this is possible so it is always worth asking

Government plans action on cash machine fees

According to the Daily Mail the Government plans to encourage shop owners to make cash machines on their premises free.

The Government intends to stop short of regulation but say they will reduce business rates to compensate any shop that loses revenue from the move.

Ministers say people should not have to pay to access their own money.

Switching children on to online safety this Christmas

As thousands of children up and down the country get to grips with the latest gadgets and technology this Christmas, parents are urged to check they know how to help keep their children safe online.

Last year more than 50% of young people were given gadgets and technology for Christmas. But parents are often in the dark about how and where they can apply parental controls to these – leaving their children unsafe and exposed to the potential dangers the online community can hold.

Parents are urged to use new whole home parental controls – introduced by the government – as well as online resources such as ParentPort and Internet Matters to help keep their children safe online.

The government has also announced extra £500,000 funding for the Safer Internet Centre, to ensure schools and teachers are also equipped to teach our young people about how to be safe online. It has also added internet safety to the curriculum to ensure every child is aware of both the benefits and dangers posed by the internet.

Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities Nicky Morgan, said:

From my conversations with parents I know how worried parents are about keeping their children safe online.

This isn’t just about what they may be exposed to but ensuring that parents’ pockets are also not hit by the unauthorised purchasing of apps and games – something very easily done.

But this isn’t just a problem for parents, schools have a role to play too, which is why we have put online safety at the heart of the curriculum and I am delighted to announce extra funding to ensure children are given the information and tools they need to protect themselves online.

The money will provide advice for schools, alongside:

  • regional events
  • new multimedia resources for schools
  • funding to enable a vital helpline for reporting online criminal content to continue
  • a series of online safety events for teachers across the country

These are the latest in a series of steps the government has taken to help make sure children are safe online and to tackle the dangers of the internet. This includes putting online safety on the curriculum, and publishing new advice for parents on keeping young people safe from cyberbullying. This offers suggestions on how children can avoid abuse on instant messaging platforms and social networks, and what to do if they are cyberbullied.

And, earlier this month, the Prime Minister announced an unprecedented package of measures to eradicate online child abuse during a global summit on child protection. This included a new joint NCA/GCHQ (National Crime Agency/Government Communications Headquarters) specialist unit to tackle the worst cases of child sexual exploitation online and provide ground-breaking technical solutions – which will be pursued by major tech companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Twitter and Yahoo – to close the net around paedophiles using the internet.

Councils urged to boost access to free-to-use cash machines on high streets

Councils are being urged to use their business rates powers to increase access to free-to-use cash machines on high streets and in town centres.

Companies who install and operate cash machines generally pay business rates to the local authority for each machine.

Small convenience stores can struggle with this despite there being help available from government that reduces costs by offering business rates discounts to these firms.

Councils opting to provide a local discount on rates can incentivise shops and cash point providers to install new machines and remove charges on pay-to-use machines.

The government wants councils to make full use of these powers to benefit local residents and make fee-free withdrawals widely available on all high streets and in neighbourhoods.

Under the government’s business rates retention scheme, central government funds 50% of the cost of any local discount granted.

High Street Minister Penny Mordaunt said:

People should not have to pay through the nose to access their cash. Free-to-use cash machines are a vital service that we are asking councils to take seriously.

Councils can reduce rates for providers that commit to introduce new cash machines into areas, or remove charges on existing machines.

We want councils to use their local business rates discount powers to ensure better access to cash machines in all areas and on our high streets.

The Association of Convenience Stores is keen for councils to make use of their local powers and is launching a guide for shopkeepers and councils that makes clear the benefits rate relief can bring.

James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said:

ATMs located in local shops, cafés and other businesses and accessed from the street provide an essential service to high streets and local communities. Over half of convenience stores now include an ATM as part of their offer to customers.

Councils should be thinking about using discretionary rate relief to reduce the costs of operating these services so that we can see more free-to-use cash machines supporting more high streets and local centres.

The government has issued advice for councils looking to use these powers to improve access to cash machines.

Frank Field MP, who has been campaigning for improved access to free-to-use cash machines in deprived areas, said:

I applaud the government for the stance it has taken on this. There is real momentum now behind our campaign to protect the poor from having to pay to withdraw cash, and we need as a next step the industry itself to work with councils to make the most of this.

Cash payment still plays a major role in the UK’s economy. Statistics released by the Payments Council show that cash is still used in over half of all payments in the UK, with cash payment particularly prevalent amongst older or disabled customers.

The government is determined to support communities and hard working families. It has reformed business rates to support local businesses and help rejuvenate high streets and town centres, and has introduced measures including:

  • a 50% business rates discount for 18 months for new businesses setting up in stores vacant for a more than a year
  • a cut in business rates for small shops, a new £1,500 retail discount and doubling small business rate relief – which is helping an estimated half a million small firms

These measures are part of support now worth £1.4 billion for 2015 to 2016. The government also recently announced it will review the future structure of business rates.

The government has taken a series of steps to help local firms with business rates:

  • doubling small business rate relief since 2010; this has been extended for another year to 2016 – supporting 575,000 of the smallest businesses; 385,000 business will pay no rates at all
  • allowing small firms to keep their small business rate relief where they take on a second property, helping them expand
  • making small business rate relief easier to claim
  • increasing the £1,000 business rate discount available in 2014 to 2015 to a £1,500 discount in 2015 to 2016 for shops, pubs and restaurants with a Rateable Value of up to £50,000, helping 278,000 firms
  • a 50% discount for 18 months to new occupants of vacant shops, bringing them back into use
  • a 2% cap in Retail Price Index increase in business rates for a second year – benefitting 1.3 million properties
  • giving ratepayers a new legal right to pay bills over 12 instalments (rather than 10), helping firms with their cash flow;
  • implementing the local retention of business rates, giving councils a direct financial incentive to support business, and ensuring the government funds for 50% of all council discretionary discounts
  • blocking the imposition of even higher business rates on large shops

Multi-million pound fund for cities to take driving seat in green car revolution

Local authorities are invited to bid for a share of the £35 million go ultra low city scheme which they can use in a range of ways to support ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs), such as installing charge-points for electric cars and introducing low emission zones.

Other measures they can use the fund for include changing planning rules to make it easier to install electric vehicle charge-points, trialling new technology and encouraging workplace schemes.

Up to 4 cities with the best proposals stand to get a share of the money. Not only will the fund help improve air quality across the country but it will boost local economies by creating more jobs.

Liberal Democrat Transport Minister Baroness Kramer said:

This £35 million funding is an unequivocal signal from government that we are committed to improving air quality and making ultra-low emission vehicles a practical and viable choice for more people.

I would like to encourage local authorities to take up this fantastic opportunity. This can help to transform people’s quality of life in their cities and build a stronger economy.

The ‘Go Ultra Low City Scheme’ complements other schemes to support low emission vehicles schemes, such as the £30 million bus scheme and the £20 million taxi scheme. It amounts to a comprehensive package of government support to encourage more environmentally friendly travel.

The government provides £500 million support for the ULEV market and infrastructure. Through the Go Ultra Low campaign it is also working with the motor car industry to explain the benefits and performance features of ultra-low emission vehicles, which include electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

All new vehicles will have some kind of ULEV element by 2040 and there has been a steady rise in the number of people taking up low emission vehicles, as more models become available. Driving costs are as low as 2p per mile and there are now over 7,000 publicly accessible charge-points installed at nearly 3,000 locations across the UK. By the end of the year almost every motorway service station will have a rapid charger.


David Ward MP backs call to end delay on Meningitis B Vaccine

David Ward MP and Meningitis B CampaignLiberal Democrat MP for Bradford, David Ward is backing a charity’s call to end delays and introduce a vaccine to protect babies against Meningitis B as soon as possible.

David Ward recently attended an event with leading charity Meningitis Now, to discuss the impact meningitis has in the UK and meet families affected by the disease.

The UK has one of the world’s highest Meningitis B rates and it kills more of the country’s under-fives than any other infectious disease.

Meningitis Now said there have been 1,000 cases of meningococcal group B disease (Meningitis B) since the new vaccine Bexsero received its licence in January 2013 – yet the vaccine still hasn’t been given to babies.

Of these cases, around 400 people will have died or suffered disabilities, which cost the NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds over a lifetime.

Back in March, the Government said the vaccine would be given free to babies up to age one on the NHS, subject to price negotiations with developer Novartis.

Now David Ward MP is backing the call to finish negotiations and get the vaccine implemented.

Commenting David Ward MP said:

“It’s very frustrating to know that we have a vaccine for Meningitis B that works but it’s not being given to babies because they are haggling over the price.

“This is simply not acceptable and should not continue.

“I’ll be contacting the Department of Health to make them aware of my very strong views on this important issue in order to get them to sort this situation out quickly so that more children do not die unnecessarily.”

Founder of Meningitis Now Steve Dayman MBE, who launched the UK’s meningitis movement after losing his baby son Spencer to the disease in 1982, believes “enough is enough”.

Steve, who won a Pride of Britain Award for his 32-year crusade, earlier this month, said:

“Negotiations have gone on too long – cut the red tape now, so no more lives are needlessly lost.

“It’s ridiculous that talks are still going on 8 months after we were told the vaccine will be on the NHS.

“The award-winning vaccine is the most monumental leap forward in the meningitis fight – the time is now to bring in this vaccine.”

The UK’s largest meningitis charity launched Beat it Now! to unite supporters to call for the vaccine.

The campaign, which saw a 36,500-name petition delivered to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, now focuses on speeding up negotiations.

To join Beat it Now! or for more information visit

You can also contact Meningitis Now on 01453 768000 or

N E Lincs Trading Standards: Steer clear of fake booze

This warning comes as hundreds of bottles of counterfeit alcohol have been seized in other parts of the Yorkshire and Humber region and tests show that many are not safe to drink because of the chemicals in them and because people can’t trust the stated alcohol strength.
During tests some have been found to contain levels of methanol which has been shown to cause nausea, dizziness, blindness and in the most severe cases can kill. Even chloroform was found, an surgical anaesthetic, not what you expect when drinking spirits.

Information leaflets are being distributed locally advising people of seven things to look out for. These include:

  • The label on a bottle may be at an odd angle
  • The label may feel bumpy and there may be glue around the edges
  • It might be an unfamiliar brand name
  • Spelling mistakes on the label
  • No manufacturer or importer name and address
  • Incorrect duty stamp. it might be missing or the wrong size or be for the wrong product eg: whisky stamp on a vodka bottle
  • Sediment in the bottle

Neil Clark, community protection manager responsible for Trading Standards, said: “At this time of year, illegal alcohol sellers know that many people will be buying alcohol to celebrate with their friends and relatives, so it is a good time for them to sell their illicit goods.

“If the price of the bottle seems too good to be true then you need to be very wary about what you are buying. It can look very convincing and you might think that you are on to a bargain, but you could pay a much bigger price in the long run.”

Anyone who thinks they might have been sold or offered illegal alcohol is urged to telephone Trading Standards via Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 040506 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.