It's not over till the fat lady sings but yesterday's announcements by the DETR's Michael Meacher are at least a step (pedal revolution?) in the right direction

Government relaxes access restrictions and announces help package

The government – concerned at the meltdown in rural tourism and the affect FMD is having on any industry with interests in countryside access – yesterday moved to tell the public there were plenty of places they were free to roam and ride.

Ben Nevis has been ‘reopened’ and many of the areas so far untouched by FMD will be persuaded to relax the knee-jerk reaction to close every outdoor amenity in sight.

An ‘access’ hotline and website is being set up. More details later.

Environment minister Michael Meacher put the government’s new tack to test yesterday, mindful that the public’s perception of the UK as ‘plague island’ needs to be countered, and countered quickly. An advertising campaign starts tomorrow, telling the public most of the countryside is open.

Meacher also announced a rate relief scheme for businesses affected by trading losses due to FMD. Tens of thousands of businesses look likely to be eligible.

More specific details will be posted here ASAP but for now here’s the Meacher speech in full:

Rural Task Force

Statement by Michael Meacher – 20 March 2001


Mr Speaker, I wish to report on the work of the Rural Task Force, which held its second meeting this morning. We all agree that our first priority remains to eradicate foot and mouth disease as soon as possible. The situation remains an extremely serious one. Its effects are very serious for both farmers and the wider rural community, especially in tourism. The Rural Task Force, which has representatives from a range of rural interests and government departments, is working urgently to develop measures to alleviate these impacts.

I must commend the response of the public who have been very anxious to avoid spreading the disease. But large parts of the country are not affected and people wrongly believe that the whole countryside is out of bounds. This has had a devastating and unnecessary impact on many of the businesses who depend on visitors to rural areas. The best way to help rural business is by encouraging their customers to return as quickly as possible to the many places where it is safe to do so.

So the Task Force has agreed on a number of actions to achieve this.

First, last Friday we issued new guidance to the public on what they can do safely in the countryside – and what they must not do. The basic message is that the public should stay away from livestock and their pastures, but that there are still plenty of things to do and places to visit in the country without risking spreading the disease.

Second an increasing number of rural properties will be opening to the public again very shortly. English Heritage are announcing today that over 200 properties will be open from 1 April. The National Trust will announce shortly that they will be opening around 150 properties between now and 1 April. British Waterways will be reopening many of their canals starting next week. In all cases this follows a very careful in depth review agreed with MAFF.

Thirdly, local authorities and National Park Authorities will be considering where footpaths can be safely opened, and I hope that there will shortly be a much wider availability of footpaths for the public outside the infected areas.

Fourthly, we are mounting a public information campaign to ensure the message gets through to the public about what they can and cannot do, and the benefits that they can bring to rural businesses by their visits to the countryside, and, in particular, to rural and seaside towns and villages, hotels, guest houses and tourist attractions in rural areas. Government in conjunction with the tourism industry is setting up a public information phone. This will steer callers to more detailed help on what attractions are open. Extra funding will be made available to the Tourist Boards to promote rural attractions.

We are also developing a preliminary package of measures to alleviate the immediate financial hardship of small businesses in rural areas which have been badly hit by the sudden drop in visitors and other knock-on effects of the foot and mouth disease. In preparing this package we have met with, and listened to, a wide range of rural interests. The first stage measures are as follows.

First, we can offer help through the rates system.

We will consider help through the rate system by increasing the central government contribution to rate relief from 75% to 95% for small business in rural authorities in areas of greatest need and who are suffering greatest hardship as a result of FMD. We will be announcing our proposals shortly.

Affected businesses can also apply to the Valuation Office Agency for a temporary reduction in their rateable value.

Yesterday we presented a Bill which will extend mandatory 50% rate relief to all food shops in small rural settlements. We will also lay regulations to extend mandatory 50% rate relief to sole village pubs and garages with a rateable value of less than £9,000.

Local authorities will also consider using their existing powers to allow deferred payment of rates.

We are also announcing a three-month extension to the deadline for business rate appeals.

Second, through the tax system.

As a first step, Ministers have asked Inland Revenue and Customs officials to take a very sympathetic approach to businesses experiencing financial problems as a result of the outbreak.

The Revenue Departments already have power in specific circumstances to defer payment of taxes and National Insurance contributions and agree extended arrangements for time to pay. They will make maximum use of this flexibility for agricultural, transport, tourism and related retail businesses in the countryside who cannot pay debts because of cash-flow problems, where cash flow assistance through rescheduling tax or NIC liabilities would help.

Third, we are considering with the Small Business Service and the Banks how we can ensure continuing credit for small businesses badly affected by the impact of Foot and Mouth disease, including the use of the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Fund. The Small Business Service through a national helpline will provide more information on the package of support available and access to the network of local business links.

Fourth, through the benefits system. Job Seekers Allowance may be available to both employees and self-employed people, out of work as a result of Foot and Mouth; and the Department of Social Security will be making their procedures as fast and flexible as possible.

I have also had constructive discussions with the major banks. It is clear that they fully understand the problems being faced by businesses from all sectors affected and they are being pro-active in contacting their customers likely to be in trouble. They made clear that they are keen to support their customers wherever possible. They will look, on a case by case basis, at mechanisms such as extended lines of credit, capital repayment holidays and other measures. I would encourage all bank customers in difficulty or expecting problems to contact their local bank manager as soon as possible to discuss what options may be available.

Finally I would like to pay tribute to the important role the voluntary sector is playing is in relieving rural distress. I can announce today that the Government will match the public donations which have been made to them for this purpose.

Mr Speaker, I should stress that this is a preliminary package. The task force will continue in being as long as it is needed, and I look forward to making further announcements in due course.

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