The Government has earmarked £5 million to ease the impact of the "'bedroom tax" in rural areas against fears countryside communities will be harmed most by the controversial policy.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee of MPs had warned the Government's under-occupation charge for social housing tenants risked forcing key "workers to leave areas where they perform a vital role, and force children to move schools, is of benefit to rural communities". But in response to their report on problem facing the countryside, published yesterday, the Government dismissed calls for settlements of fewer than 3,000 people to be excluded from the policy.
However, it acknowledged "issues faced in certain isolated/remote areas" and revealed £5 million has been allocated in discretionary housing payment funding for the 21 least densely populated areas across. This includes £79,143 in West Devon and £81,850 in West Somerset.
Critics had argued a dearth of one and two-bedroom homes in the countryside means rural tenants have no choice but to move into towns and cities if they cannot make up the rent shortfall.
Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE), the umbrella body for England's 38 rural community councils, claims scaling-back benefits of tenants of working age in homes deemed to have spare rooms would force people to leave the villages where they grew up.
Officials at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had presented a "rural proofing workshop" to staff at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – in charge of the policy – to "highlight rural issues". This led to the extra money.
"This is intended to address the challenges faced by the most remote areas, allowing local authorities to target those who are affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy," the response said.
But it made no apology for the policy. "The purpose of the removal of the spare room subsidy is not to force people to move," the statement read.
"Where people are affected by the measure, they will decide what action to take based on their particular circumstances."
The rural cash is part of £190 million in funding allocated this year to help families adjust to the new benefit rules, DWP said.
ACRE chief executive Janice Banks has criticised the Government's "blanket approach" that will "inevitably force rural tenants out of villages where they have lived for years, taking them away from their extended families, schools and support networks".
"It will take key workers away from areas where they perform vital roles," she added.
"The 'bedroom tax' takes no account of the challenges rural tenants face."