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Will Easter put rural enterprise back in business?

Thursday 17 April 2003

Our countryside columnist John Sheard discusses the importance of this Easter holiday for businesses facing a general downturn - and still not fully recovered from FMD

THIS weekend, off for a spot of fishing, I shall drive past the Bridge Hotel at Ingleton and my heart will drop. For the Bridge, once one of my favourite Dales haunts, is no longer a pub/inn - it is being converted into flats.

The Bridge is just one of many old Dales hostelries which have closed in the past two years in this crazy, topsy-turvy economic world when a once thriving business is worth more divided into small units - often to be used as second homes - than as a crucial social centre for its local community.

For the Bridge and several others, foot and mouth was the last straw. Last Easter, country visitors had just begun to pick up after the disaster of 2001.

This weekend, with exceptional weather forecast and many fewer Brits flying abroad because of the tense international situation, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small traders hoping that the visitors will arrive in their tens of thousands - and spend a few bob on local products.

The latter is crucial for, to be frank, many day-trippers are as tight as an oyster. I know we are talking about a different type of market but a very expensive research exercise carried out by Blackpool council a few years ago revealed what experts call (sorry about the language) a "tea and a pee syndrome."

In other words, the great majority of visitors to that town only leave their cars and coaches to have a cup of tea and use the public toilets. Many don't even bother with the cup of tea: they bring their own sandwiches and a flask.

I am not aware of similar research into the habits of countryside visitors but the vast majority of day-trippers to the Lakes move only a few hundred yards from their cars - a fact which emerged when the national park committee tried to introduce a tollgate tax system for visitors and were howled out of court.

The secret, of course, is to attract a better class of visitor: people who stay at least one night and, as well as using local restaurants and pubs, also buy local products like handicrafts, art works, and particularly locally produced foodstuffs - subject a new national campaign launched this week (see News, Tuesday).

But, at present, we face a strange economic anomaly here. Back in the 1980s, when bank interest rates went up and down like a kite on a windy day, a friend of mine who ran a superb inn (now, sadly, sold) told me that the better off visitors stop coming when interest rates are low.

I was puzzled by this until he explained that many particularly older people only spend the interest on their savings because they refuse to dip into their capital. With interest rates now at record lows, will this affect Easter trade this year?

So how do we get the better-off trade and discourage the tea-and-a-pee brigade? One answer, of course, lies in the hands of the Iron Chancellor - but it is highly unlikely that he will let it escape his sporran.

British hotels are amongst the most expensive in Europe. Fish and chips in Skipton would buy you a decent three-course meal in a French country café. Alcoholic drinks are a rip-off - and room prices are extortionate even by American standards.

The Chancellor could change this by targeting VAT cuts and business tax relief at small rural businesses. By allowing rural councils and national park committees to introduce a "locals only" housing market - as operated successfully in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man for decades - he could discourage wealthy offcumdens from snapping up small cottages as holiday homes.

That way, they might use some of the money they have saved by visiting the countryside and staying in local pubs and hotels. This way, they would make a real contribution to the rural economy. And places like the Bridge Inn at Ingleton might still be in business.

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