The country comes a calling on London

by Patrick Palmer

The Brecon and Radnor Express 17 May 2001

MORE than 100 protesters from Powys travelled to London last week to demand more government aid and to hand a l2bn invoice to the Chancellor for a predicted loss of earnings in rural businesses decimated by the foot and mouth crisis.

Nearly 100 members of the Powys Rural Business Campaign travelled in two coaches to London where they met with a similar number of protesters from other parts of the’ country affected by foot and mouth including Cumbria, Anglesey, Snowdon, Devon and Exmoor.

They then staged a demonstration in Parliament Square before a small delegation was allowed into the Commons to lobby their local MPs -including Richard Livsey and Lembit Opik - and government ministers in charge of the Foot and Mouth crisis.

Banners displayed by the protesters included - ‘The rural economy is in melt-down’; ‘Take a 95 per cent pay cut and see how it feels’; and ‘Dulverton Laundry washes white then spins and dries - this government whitewashes, then spins the lies’ (Dulverton is a small town on Exmoor).

The demonstrators waited patiently in the pouring rain until Tony Blair and his party swept into parliament for the last Prime Minister’s Questions of this current Parliament. They then marched on Downing Street where a delegation of six protesters were allowed to take the l2bn invoice to Number 11 - the Chancellor’s office.

Reflecting on a successful day, Ian Mitchell, chairman and a founder of the Powys Rural Business Campaign, told The Brecon & Radnor Express:

"It was a frenetic day, but we have certainly raised our profile through extensive media coverage in national and regional media, and hopefully it will have struck a chord with government.

"Gordon Brown says he cannot afford to compensate all the businesses which claim to have been affected by the crisis - but it would be quite feasible if a properly structured scheme was set up.

"Our message is simple, clear and unambiguous, if the government chooses to ignore this problem now then there will be even bigger problems next Winter when there will a massive increase in the unemployment figures and the number of rural businessess going bankrupt.

Mr Mitchell was also keen to make it clear that for every protester there were another 100 businesses owners who could simply not afford to make the trip as they have had to cut back on staff and run the business themselves in an effort to keep it afloat.

He started the campaign with David Thomas and Trish Armstrong of the New Inn, Llanbadarn Fynydd who has seen her takings plummet by 80% since the first outbreak of Foot and Mouth in Powys back in early March.

She said: "We had plans to convert a barn into a children’s play area, but I cannot raise the money to do it now as I have a 25,000 overdraft. And I have had to lay off staff.

"In my view the National Assembly has done very little - and that’s why we took our campaign to London. Powys has been allocated 1.2 million to help with rate relief, but that’s a fracion of turnover and a fraction of what is really needed—and it isn’t available yet.

But we are determined that Government must be made to help. What started as a small campaign here in rural Wales has mushroomed into a national campaign very quickly and we intend to keep the momentum going and our profile high."

The campaign was intended Initially to help rural businesses in Powys, but the trio soon realised they had a lot in common with other Foot and Mouth infected areas.

And now the group intends to keep the foot & mouth issue at the forefront of the election campaign. Indeed, members will also be lobbying local councillors, and National Assembly members to ensure that adequate compensation is paid to businesses hit by the foot and mouth epidemic.

"What we need to do now is to co-ordinate the pressure on all political parties and any organisation with funding available," concluded Mr Mitchell.

Each individual on the bus had their own tale of woe - bookings cancelled, huge losses incurred and a steady erosion of capital.

Peter Jackson, who owns and runs Beacons Guest House in Llanfaes, made the long journey despite having a slipped disc.

"We have to persuade our political leaders that we are in deep, deep distress and unless they help we will go under, and that will cause massive knock-on problems for rural Wales, so I was determined to be part of the demonstration," he explained.

I caught up with Peter after the demonstration as he sat uncomfortably outside Westminster Cathedral, and asked if he felt the demonstration had been a success.

"If I’m honest, I doubt if our efforts will have much impact on the Chancellor, but I hope we have shown others just how serious the problem is," he said.

"Here in London it is buzzing with foreign tourists and many of them would have come to Wales as part of a regional tour outside the capital. They don’t want to know us at the moment, and the increasing number of foot and mouth outbreaks in the Brecon area means this season is dead for us now."

Cohn Evans, of Cantref Riding Centre and Bunkhouses, who organised the bus from Brecon, added: "The trip to London, although expensive and time consuming for us all, has raised the profile of our campaign, and we intend to keep it firmly in the eye of politicians as they get around on the hustings.

"It’s all very well for them to say that the countryside is open - the coastal resorts are, and we wish then well, but practically all of rural Mid Wales is firmly and it is a totally separate issue.

Cohn’s family have been farming in Cantref for 45 years and running the successful riding centre and bunkhouse venture for over 35 years.

"This is the first time we have never had a booking for riding, and I don’t know when we will be able to start again," he said. "Thank goodness I have the farm to fall back on, otherwise we might have gone to the wall."

Despite the recent media reports of an increase in visitors to the countryside during the Bank Holiday, Powys tourism businesses still reported an average downturn of 70%.

One should remember that most of the Powys tourist attractions, for which it is rightly famous and are the reason why most visitors travel here, remain firmly closed and will be for some time to come.

It’s time all parties concerned - from government at all levels to quangos with money to burn realise the seriousness of the situation, stop talking about it, get their fingers out and help.

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