Foot and Mouth

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:25 am on 4th December 2001.

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Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon 11:25 am, 4th December 2001

Although the first outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in my constituency did not occur until April—the election had been called before the first outbreak occurred—a large part of North Yorkshire was already frozen because of outbreaks elsewhere, in Wensleydale, and in Cumbria. Businesses have lost in every season this year. North Yorkshire is still not a free county, but I hope that in a week or so, certainly before Christmas, it will have that status, access will be largely, but not entirely, opened up and businesses can begin to look forward to next year without the catastrophe that overwhelmed them this year.

The business crisis has been widespread. Foot and mouth disease is thought of first as an agricultural and livestock problem, but the ripples go extensively through businesses. John Mann spoke eloquently about the youth hostel movement, which takes about £2 million a year. Just before the outbreak, I opened a refurbished youth hostel in my constituency, which promptly became non-functioning because of the lack of visitors. Tourism is often thought of as bed and breakfast, but many retired people who may have a spare room take visitors and do bed and breakfast; their life does not revolve around it. However, the people who run pubs and hotels are often wholly dependent upon free movement and on people being able to visit. There is no purpose in going to areas such as Grassington, for example, other than to gain access to the countryside of Wharfedale and Malhamdale. If people cannot gain access to the countryside, they do not go; businesses have had only 10, 12 or 15 per cent. of their visitors the previous year. It will be interesting to know whether the Christmas bookings are better, because people expect the countryside to be freer.

There are outdoor education and trekking centres in my constituency. Some people had just set up a business, and bought ponies and hired staff, and their business simply failed. I mentioned pubs and the hotels; the country shows at Pateley Bridge, Kilnsey and Malham were a complete wipeout, and the Masham sheep fair, perhaps most poignantly of all, this year had a competition for fake sheep. There were pens on Masham marketplace and people competed to make sheep out of wire, wool and so on—they were very imaginative—as they could not show the real thing. My neighbour had a high-quality entry, which she kept in her garage. I communed with it for some weeks when the wool was being stuck to the exhibit.

Many businesses have turned to making plaques for a living, which are awarded to for fell racing, or at country show events. Business is down catastrophically, even miles away from the infected areas; the National Trust and some public and semi-public bodies have suffered too. In towns such as Settle, where the epidemic started, there have been ramifications for almost every business that one can mention. Hotels and pubs in Horton in Ribblesdale—the epicentre of the epidemic—and in Malham and Grassington have all been affected. Businesses usually hope to make some fat over the summer and have a good autumn half-term holiday, which is the last real attempt to make money before the winter weather sets in. However, they have not been able to put by any stores, so the crisis will come this winter.

The crisis in businesses in my constituency, especially in tourism, is associated not only with the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. During the fuel crisis, travellers searched desperately to find a pump open in the Yorkshire dales. The serious problems caused by flooding also had an impact on tourism, and the persistently high level of the pound has made it much cheaper for many people to go abroad for their holidays than to spend them in the United Kingdom.

Those factors were present before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The Government's business rate relief and various funds provided some help. Regional development agencies have channelled funds, although there have been common complaints throughout the UK about the sheer bureaucracy of the processes that must be gone through before the money can be accessed. For many businesses whose desperate need was survival, the requirement to propose a business plan for future development was three or four steps beyond the crisis.