Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 74 - 79)



  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for coming to see us today. We are particularly pleased that you are able to come because obviously your areas are suffering particular difficulties.

Ms Ward

  74. When I was in Cumbria talking to Chris Collier about the problems we are facing in the tourist industry, particularly in guest houses, she talked about a rescue package and also the problem with the current loan guarantee scheme. Could you explain in a bit more detail the ideas about traditional schemes that you have been putting forward in addition to all the things you are trying to do to bring all the tourists back into the area?

  (Mr Stephens) Apologies from Chris Collier. She is having to meet the Prime Minister today. On the initiatives we have been putting forward, obviously there has been a terrible crisis over the past few weeks. There have been a lot of ideas coming forward on getting direct support for businesses who are urgently in need of help. The loan guarantee scheme and some of the initiatives that have been taken with the tax breaks and the rate holidays are going some way to helping but frankly it is just skimming the surface. People are facing desperate circumstances. We know that a number of people have gone under already. About 1,000 jobs have been lost, we estimate. Very importantly, a lot of the key skills, a lot of very highly qualified chefs and other marketing personnel, have been laid off and are leaving the area, going to other parts of the country and abroad. That is a very serious matter. Turning to your question, obviously we have been trying very hard to get initiatives which make sure that we do not lose our vital skills. We need some sort of income support for those key personnel, that is some immediate cash injection to help people with their loss of income over the short term and a recovery package to get them up and running as soon as possible. There have been a whole range of issues and they are still unfolding daily as the various agencies consider the different options.

  75. There was one specific proposal I understood you were putting forward with regard to a model of effects upon economies from oil spillages that we have seen in coastal towns in the past.

  (Mr Stephens) Yes. It is one example where we thought a tried and tested methodology was in place. I assume the panel knows what this is about. It is basically a compensation scheme that was implemented in west Wales where tourism businesses were compensated for actual and consequential losses. What was encouraging is that the authorities were able to find a way to assess what losses were incurred in comparison to trading patterns in previous years. The difference in that scheme is it was based on an insurance scheme where oil companies and governments have put into a pot of funding which the compensation claims could be made against. Unfortunately, we do not have that pot of money, other than central government funding or European funding, which possibly could do that. There are other models: the Manchester bomb compensation scheme. I am sure there are other schemes that could be appropriate. We felt this should be brought to the attention of government and we believe there is a very strong case for helping those most in desperate need.

  76. Could I extend the question to the others as well and ask what is the single most important thing that you believe either agencies or government could do to assist the tourist industries in your area in the short term?

  (Mr Bell) I think there are three things. One is the opening up of the product, especially the footpaths and parks. Second is promotion and marketing. We have roughly banded our businesses into three sorts. It is basically a matrix: how close you are to an infection. Devon is not that far. How closely your business is aligned to farm animals and farming in real rural areas. The third aspect is in terms of the national parks and openness. If you are in Devon, like a company called The Big Sheep which runs a tourist attraction based on mixing with animals and seeing sheep, you are blighted, as opposed to a resort hotel in Torquay. Some have been dented; some have had consequential loss; some have had quite considerable loss and can come back hopefully and some, quite honestly, are blighted. Our concern across the south west and Devon is that blighted businesses and individual work forces will not survive commercially long enough for the customers to come back.

  (Ms Broatch) If you had asked me that question a month ago, I would have said the eradication of the disease. That was a priority determined by joint partners on the foot and mouth task force in Cumbria. On the basis that we are being told that the disease is now under control and likely to be running to a halt in June, the next thing would be about "open for business" in terms of getting that message out there. Our dependency on tourism as an economy is significant and the impact we are anticipating will be significant on our GDP and on jobs. The other critical issue is the interdependencies, so getting that message that we are open for business is critical. In order to do that in Cumbria, where we have 98 per cent as an infected area, we need to get some sound advice about what the risk assessment of that is. We are working hard on that. We also need to know when the farms that are now culled come out into what is technically known as the release period. In other words, when we can start to open up things in those areas. Cooperation with MAFF, getting good information from MAFF and getting that open for business message is critical in terms of us all standing by wanting desperately to do it, to get people back to Cumbria and to help our tourism industry to recover.

  (Mr Jenkinson) In terms of open for business in Devon, one of the messages we try to put out is that much still is open for business. However, there is this great swathe, not least because of Dartmoor, that effectively tourists can no longer use in the way that they have used it in the past. We have the problems identified earlier on of the media images on the one hand and our wish to promote on the other.

Mrs Organ

  77. We have all been saying that it has been terrible because of foot and mouth. Undoubtedly there has been a knock-on impact from that, but we have to be honest with ourselves. If we look at areas in the south west, rural tourism, not the beaches, going to historic cathedral cities or whatever, but real rural tourism, have we not been having problems with that year on year, because the majority of people that go there are United Kingdom residents who now go not for a week sort of walking around the countryside but actually go abroad?

  (Mr Bell) It is an interesting perception. My perception is different, that one of the most highly prized products we have been developing over the last year is the real, authentic, rural experience. That is staying on a real farm that is working. That has become extremely attractive, for the short break market, I will admit. People do not want to stay on a farm for two weeks, although the enthusiasts do, but it is a very valuable package for three or four nights. It has been very popular with the northern European market, particularly where it is linked to within long distance walking paths or the coastal paths. It has been a market that we have been promoting and encouraging through European funded schemes in certain parts of the region for farmers to get into. There has been a lot of investment, but it is still quite fragile in terms of growing the market.

  78. The biggest problem with that market is that there are lots of things you can do in the countryside. You can always go to the pub; you can always go and look at an historic church; you can always look at a shop or whatever but what people really want to do is to be able to walk in the national parks and on the footpaths. I wonder if you can tell us what sort of role you have played in pressing for areas that have been maybe not in an infected area or the infection was long ago but the footpaths are still closed; or as in the case of the Forest of Dean where we have cleared all the animals out of there. We have gone past 14 days. Why are we not opening the statutory paths?

  (Mr Bell) The issue should always be why is the path closed, not why should it be opened, because we have to get them opened as soon as possible. Tourism is in the hospitality business and it is very important that the right influencing is done on the land owner and land user so that you do not end up with unfortunate incidents, because that would fuel more media stories. We want to push hard and fast but I would not want to push to the point where the land owner and land user were very anti and therefore we ended up shooting ourselves in the foot.

  (Mr Jenkinson) Obviously it is always going to be a question of balance but the reality in Devon, which is a very badly affected county, is that 30 per cent of our footpaths are open.

  79. People can walk in certain locations?

  (Mr Jenkinson) They can. Research does show that people are not anxious necessarily to walk 100 miles but they are more than happy to walk just a few miles. We can cater for that at the moment.

  (Mr Stephens) Part of the Cumbria task force work is a sub group that looks at lifting restrictions on footpaths and rights of way. They have been working extremely hard to undertake the risk assessments over the last few weeks. We have about 100 sites, probably about 80 walks, various car parks and various other rights of way, open. That is a tiny percentage of what we would normally consider as our rural walking product in Cumbria. It is a major problem and I think it stems from some of the larger expanse areas of access being under the control of the National Trust or the National Park Authority or the large land owners. As has been previously said, significant headway in lifting restrictions will only be by negotiation between the land owner and the authorities and the pressure groups wanting to open. This is essential if we are to see a recovery in 2001. It is still being worked on daily. I understand that Government Taskforces are making encouraging noises about defining an acceptable level of risk. We then can get a clear message out saying it is unlikely that an individual is going to pass on or spread this disease. It is all mixed up in the veterinary science advice and the advice we are getting from various MAFF advisers. Of course, the tourism industry will really want to press hard to get restrictions lifted as soon as possible.

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