Farming and local councils
AUTHOR: AMY COBBETT, BUSINESS AND RURAL AFFAIRS ADVISER AT THE NATIONAL FARMERS' UNION
With the outbreak of COVID-19, we are in an unprecedented time of change and challenges. In order for rural communities and businesses to successfully navigate the difficulties presented by COVID-19, it is important to work together to best support these areas during this trying time. This piece briefly outlines some ways that local (parish and town) councils can work alongside the National Farmers' Union (NFU) and farmers to ensure the best possible outcome for rural businesses.
Ways to support British farmers:
While local councils are not in charge of planning permission, local councils comment on planning applications within their jurisdiction. A flexible planning system is essential for the short term. If temporary changes must become more permanent, there is a need for clear guidance to prioritise such as planning applications and for support to help this to happen.
The planning system is currently testing online-only services during the Coronavirus outbreak. For rural communities, it will be more difficult to engage with the planning system, due to poor broadband and lack of access to library and local council paper documents. Evidence suggests trying to use existing social medial platforms, for example for public planning meetings, can be challenging as they are not designed for this purpose.
The government is supporting small businesses through small business grants and retail, hospitality, and leisure grants. Though they are not distributed by local councils, support can be given through making sure that local areas know that the grants are available, and to ensure that they have been given the funds that they are eligible for. Further NFU guidance on financial support can be found here.
Supporting local businesses
Many of our members are not only farmers but small business owners with diversified business ventures. Encouraging local communities to buy local produce and to support local businesses will help the entire rural community and keep the local economy afloat. Further, once lockdown is lifted, small diversified businesses will need help in recovering from the economic impact. Encouraging the use of local businesses whether they be retail, leisure, hospitality or tourism-related.
Respecting rights of way
Throughout the lockdown, we have seen a larger number of people coming to the countryside for a walk. While the NFU recognises that there are multiple health and wellness benefits to getting out and enjoying the countryside, which (under normal circumstances) the NFU actively promotes; arguably during this time, it may be imperative that the countryside remains open where possible. Consequently, the NFU understands and supports the need to keep the public rights of way network open so far as possible, whilst also ensuring that adequate measures are in place to protect those living and working in the countryside.
Some guidelines for walkers across farmland during COVID-19 include leaving gates how they were found, using a hand sanitiser after touching fencing or gates, staying only on the footpath, and being respectful of the land and those who farm it. Further guidance for landowners can be found here.
The best way to ensure the best outcome for local councils and farmers is through communication and engagement. The NFU regional teams can be found online and many of our members sit on parish and local councils. Keeping open and respectful dialogue can help ensure that the best interest of a community is always a priority.