With the support of Cumbria Tourism, a group of residential outdoor activity centres across the county are launching a county-wide lobbying drive to get their local MPs to support the sector in what are proving to be very tough times.
Many businesses are facing difficult trading through the current COVID-19 crisis, but for those that rely on overnight stays by schools and colleges for a significant part of their income there are added complications. While many hotels and other accommodation providers have been able to reopen at close to capacity since the 4th July, specific government restrictions are preventing all schools in the UK from organising their regular learning outside the classroom trips.
Justin Farnan from the Lake District Calvert Trust in Keswick, who is also a Non-Exec Director for Cumbria Tourism explains. “Despite other rules on overnight stays being relaxed, for schools and colleges they have a 100% ban imposed for 2020 and no clarity for 2021. This will mean that in addition to major shortfalls in 2020, for many activity centres the majority of next year will be written off too. This is a highly visible part of the Cumbrian economy and no sight of any change in guidance risks 100’s of jobs and some permanent closures, skills and facilities that may never be regained, plus further shocks within the local supply chain.”
Outdoor centres have gone to great lengths to ensure they are COVID-19 secure and following all government guidelines and the sector has a long record of safely providing great experiences. Lockdown will have impacted disadvantaged pupils most and outdoor education can reignite an interest in learning and engagement for those who struggle in a classroom environment. Today’s children are tomorrow’s visitors and residentials introduce 1,000s of young people every year to the natural world. It encourages them to return to Cumbria in later life, equipped with the knowledge to visit responsibly, reducing anti-social behaviour and the associated costs.
Tim Foster, Head of Group (North) Field Studies Council adds; “We want to play our part in helping learners catch up and teachers to cover the curriculum. We have the COVID-19 secure locations and experienced staff ready to go, but we need the guidance to change to allow schools to make an informed decision. With schools now open and even able to hire out their buildings and facilities to external organisations for extracurricular activities, it seems incongruous that they are not yet able to allow the learners to stay in other buildings that have the same rigorous standards.”
After several weeks of talks, outdoor umbrella organisations have met with staff from the Department for Education to hear of the Secretary of State’s decision regarding guidance to schools on residential visits. Unfortunately, there has been no change for the Autumn term and no clarity for 2021 until at least November. The group believe that an urgent and immediate review of government guidance is needed as many centres that would otherwise remain highly viable businesses may not recover, even if they can ‘hang on’ through the winter.
Debbie Beament, Director of Newlands Adventure Centre agrees; “ With no schools coming in 2020 and with teachers unsure as to whether they can book residential trips in 2021, this leaves businesses such as ours in a precarious financial position. We came out of last winter expecting a full season, only to be put in lockdown with no trading and now we are entering this winter with little in the bank to see us through until next season. The government support available is really no more than a sticking plaster on a bleeding financial artery as centres still have large outgoings despite no income. For residential centres to survive and be able to carry on providing valuable education and development and keep staff employed, we need government support and allowing schools to book with confidence for 2021 would be a big step in securing our financial future. There are too many anomalies and confusion with Covid-19 guidance and restrictions, so some clarity on this matter would help save businesses and jobs.”
To support their case, the group, which includes a number of well know businesses and organisations right across the county, are in the first instance writing to all the local MPs as there are impacted centres in all 6 constituencies in Cumbria. This will be followed up by all the centres and organisations engaging with their local communities through social media and other channels to get their support too. This is especially relevant considering their importance to local supply chains and the knock-on impacts their potential closures will have.
Justin Farnan concludes; “While we welcome the Chancellor’s winter package for the wider tourism industry, we need our Cumbrian MPs to support this very specific and important sector which shines such a positive light on the whole county. We very much hope they will work with us and support our efforts to get central government to urgently review this restriction on school travel, giving us all a fighting chance of continued trading through 2021 and beyond.”