Last week, the Countryside Alliance briefed peers ahead of the House of Lords debate on the economic lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures necessary to repair the UK economy.
The debate covered a vast array of areas that encompassed both rural and urban concerns. If the UK economy is to recover, it must do so urban and rural together. COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges that will take years to overcome. On top of the issues COVID-19 has created, we also have the no small feat of getting the country ready for when the Brexit transition period ends later this year. In preparation for that date, currently going through Parliament is the Agriculture Bill, Environment Bill, Trade Bill and Immigration Bill - all of which, in some way, will impact rural life.
The Government is spinning a lot of plates and that is without the tectonic plate that is post-COVID-19 recovery. As such, the economy debate in the House of Lords is important as it feeds into the decision making and framing in each of the aforementioned bills. We of course want to get the UK economy going, and to do that we need everything in place to allow businesses to get on unrestricted and unhampered un their recovery efforts.
For that reason, broadband delivery in rural hard to reach areas has long been a central ask to government. The current lack of broadband infrastructure serving small firms threatens the expansion of the rural economy, currently worth £400bn annually. It is a significant barrier to recovery and future growth, and one the Government must address urgently.
COVID-19 has disrupted the £13 billion per year rural tourism industry. Businesses have not been able to capitalise on the weather, and even as restrictions have been eased to allow travel to beauty spots, shops have been forced to remain closed and thus unable to capitalise on the increased footfall.
We have therefore, called on the Government to:
- Relax the restrictions on staying away from home and allowing campsites and self-catering accommodation to reopen. Camping and caravanning sites and self-catering farm cottages in particular could operate with the appropriate hygiene and social distancing measures in place. Camping and caravanning sites alone have already missed out on £25 million of income during lockdown.
- Allow cafes and pubs to open gardens and outside seating. Pubs and cafes should be able to make use of the takeaway rules and also be able to serve alcoholic beverages and other drinks subject to social distancing rules, with the use of beer gardens, car parks and other outside areas explicitly permitted.
- Encourage all national parks, local authorities and private landowners to reopen car parks to spread visitors across the countryside rather than concentrating them at 'honey pot' sites.
We were delighted to see that our briefing was well received by peers and used in respective contributions, with Lord Stevenson of Balmacara echoing our calls that 'no part of the UK is left behind, especially seaside and rural areas'. Baroness Doocey also called on caravanning sites and self-catering holiday businesses to be allowed to reopen, making the point for the latter that the policy did not match up with the business reality. She argued that self-catering lets are businesses and thus should be treated as such, not as part of a property portfolio as they currently are. The Alliance agrees, and would also make the point that the Government needs to focus more on the nuances of these kinds of businesses, particularly found in rural areas, so that they are treated fairly and allowed to reopen along with more conventional businesses.
The challenges facing the Government, rural areas and indeed the whole of the UK are many. The Alliance will continue to ensure the voice of rural Britain is heard and ensure legislation is appropriate and reflects the needs of those in the countryside, as we navigate the aftermath of this pandemic and prepare for life outside the European Union.
Our full briefing can be read here,