‘Unprecedented and unsettling times’ for our countryside economy

Cath Crowther, East regional director for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). Picture:

Cath Crowther, East regional director for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). Picture: SONYA DUNCAN - Credit: Sonya Duncan

East Anglia’s rural economy – and the countryside communities who rely on it – need to be protected from the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic says CATH CROWTHER, East regional director of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).

We are living in unprecedented and unsettling times. The coronavirus is affecting all of us on a very personal level and it will undoubtedly continue to provide significant challenges for many rural businesses over the coming weeks and months.

During this adversity, it is likely that many of our members, who are a range of farmers, landowners and rural businesses, will need the support and services of the CLA and others more than ever. The member enquiries we are receiving help guide our lobbying work and provide us with case study examples.

As a nation we have never been faced with a challenge quite like this. It is important for all businesses to be contingency planning and the vast majority are a long way down this process. Areas such as cash flow, logistics/supply chains, insurance, contracts and procedures to pay and protect employees, are just a few areas where business owners are reviewing their processes and asking our advice.

Diversified rural businesses such as those in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors for example have been hit by a wide-range of cancellations, postponements and closures. With social distancing now a priority, it is making life increasingly difficult for everyone from a personal and business perspective.

The CLA is speaking regularly to Defra and other government officials to ensure the voice of the rural community is heard during this challenging period. We have, for example, been one of the key voices that has lobbied for farmers and those involved in food production to be classified as “key workers”. We are also urging people to take up jobs on farms to support the workforce and save this year’s harvest, which will undoubtedly be stretched due to restrictions on travel and the movement of people.

We are monitoring announcements of business support from the government very closely and lobbying hard to ensure rural businesses get the support they need and also clarity on the support measure which are announced.

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The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) provides a government backed and guaranteed loan facility for any business that needs finance to pay rents, salaries and suppliers. As a result of issues experienced by our members when talking to their banks, we lobbied for changes. Some of the rules around the scheme have now been amended.

A 100% business rates holiday has been extended to all retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in England, regardless of their rateable value, for the next 12 months.

Businesses in any sector of the economy who pay little or no business rates because they can claim small business rate relief or rural rate relief have not been overlooked. They can apply for a one-off grant of £10,000 each from their local authority to assist with ongoing business costs. In addition the government will provide a grant of £25,000 to retail, hospitality and leisure businesses with a rateable value of £15,000-£51,000. You should contact your local authority if you have any questions about your eligibility for these, and other potential reliefs.

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, Statutory Sick Pay Relief Package, Self Employed Income Support Scheme, VAT payment deferral provide other support during this difficult time.

Concern has been raised that, with the Covid-19 outbreak, professional advisers may be unable to visit farmers before the Basic Payment Scheme’s May 15 deadline, making it difficult for applicants to meet the deadline. The CLA has been liaising directly with the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), Defra and Natural England regarding the administration of the Basic Payment, Countryside Stewardship and Countryside Productivity Schemes.

We are also appealing to all rural landlords and tenants to work together collaboratively and compassionately during this unprecedented time where dialogue will be more important than ever to ensure practical solutions can be found for ongoing issues.

Whilst it is an extremely difficult time, it has been fantastic to hear stories of farm shops and cafes being able to offer delivery to the vulnerable or even directly to NHS staff in hospitals. In many rural areas, the local butcher, grocer or farm shop provide not only an accessible supply (which has in many cases been more reliable than the supermarkets) but also keep the local economy going.

We don’t know how long the coronavirus will continue to impact on every element of society. We must protect rural businesses through these very difficult weeks and months ahead to ensure we can sustain a vibrant rural economy once the risk and uncertainty begins to subside.