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Countryside Alliance: reopen the countryside and let rural businesses prosper

Ann Mallalieu

Baroness Mallalieu QC, the Countryside Alliance President, has written about three areas where the Government could start to reopen the countryside.

Writing for the Countryside Alliance website, Baroness Mallalieu discusses why these should be: campsites & cottages, cafes and pubs with outdoor gardens and re-opening all national park car parks to spread visitors across the countryside rather than concentrating them at select ‘honey pot’ sites.

At the heart of her argument, is the Countryside Alliance’s strong belief that tourism underpins the rural economy and will be the engine that restarts it.

“In so many ways I am very lucky to be living through the Covid crisis in a remote Exmoor village. The ability to walk in the Spring countryside in one of the most beautiful places imaginable contrasts hugely with the experience of so many of our fellow citizens locked down in towns and cities. Our thoughts are permanently with them, but in the countryside we also have concerns that do not affect them. There is no nightingale hospital at the end of our lane and the fear of a significant outbreak of Covid 19 overwhelming sparse rural healthcare resources has been a recurring nightmare across many of the most remote areas of the countryside during the crisis.

And whilst infection rates might be reducing the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier this month that restrictions in England were being eased to allow people to drive to the countryside to exercise has created a new wave of concern. Of course restrictions must be lifted, and understandably people locked down in urban areas for weeks are desperate to escape to the countryside, but at the moment rural communities are being asked to accept the risk of people travelling to the countryside, without any reward. In some areas this has created an unpleasant atmosphere with local people increasingly wary of visitors. If this situation continues until the Government’s proposed third phase of Covid recovery in six weeks time, whilst increasing numbers of people travelling into the countryside on a daily basis, there is a real risk of an increasing divide between town and country.

The Countryside Alliance believes that the answer is not to restrict movement to the countryside, but to allow rural businesses to reopen and get some reward. There are three areas in particular where the Government could start to reopen the countryside:

Firstly by relaxing 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 the Covid lockdown.

Secondly by allowing 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.

Thirdly by encouraging 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.

These proposals might not be universally popular in the countryside, but it would be a huge mistake for rural communities to think that they can isolate themselves completely either from the virus, or from its economic impact. Tourism underpins the rural economy and will be the engine that restarts it. People from across the UK will be desperate to get away as restrictions on movement are eased. With international travel likely to remain difficult for some time the British countryside will be the number one destination. It is vital that the Government in England, and the devolved administrations, move as quickly as they can to reopen the countryside and resolve the growing division. ”

The Government’s “Covid-19 Recovery strategy” – published earlier this month – made clear that in England “people may drive to outdoor open spaces irrespective of distance, so long as they respect social distancing guidance while they are there, because this does not involve contact with people outside your household”.

However the same guidance said that campsites, hotels and other parts of the hospitality industry could not open until July 4 at the earliest.

The Camping and Caravanning Club has already reported that camping and caravan sites have already missed out on £25 million of income during the Covid lockdown period.

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