Opinion: Pandemic gives community time to reflect

It is late March and, as I write from a remote part of Northumberland, we are in the throes of lambing. People on my patch are not so concerned with catching a virus, but with keeping their new arrivals alive. It seems that spring has just got colder than winter.

Like all rural estates, we have sought to diversify and, over the past 12 years, have invested in all sorts of initiatives to reduce our exposure to agriculture and traditional rural business. Unfortunately, it seems that Covid-19 has, as nature often does, found a weakness in this approach.

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Our wedding bookings this year, while not huge, were better than ever before. But all of these are now looking to postpone until 2021. The holiday accommodation, at this moment, looks like it will struggle to let, and our garden openings, heritage tours and corporate events programme all look under threat.

But weirdly, there are some opportunities evolving. Prior to lockdown, we took an enquiry from a family who wanted to “isolate” somewhere remote for at least two months in our largest property. It’s a staycation, but not as we know it.

Cath, who runs our local shop and post office, is doing a roaring trade as the “social isolators” and homeworkers, particularly the older ones, don’t just buy their paper and fags from her now, but their whole weekly shop.

I had a long conversation with my friend, Paul Cowie, research fellow at the Centre for Rural Economy, Newcastle University, who is looking into rural workspaces. His observation was that, in the longer term, providing shared workspace in rural areas with good connectivity is a real opportunity.

A greater acceptance of home working could also help this new and thriving sector in the rural economy.

My limited exposure to social media suggests that some rural businesses are quickly innovating and diversifying. Offering more takeaway services or home deliveries and suggesting purchases of gift vouchers are just a couple of the ideas proving popular.

This period will also prove a valuable time to get all those things you wanted to change sorted out. The track for the catering team that serves our marquee site can now be done, as we have time. The redecorating of one of the older cottages can be achieved without the pressure of guests due to arrive.

In the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, my grandfather, then aged 98 and having farmed all his life, said “it’s not a bad thing, it’ll give the land a rest”. I feel slightly the same about the current situation. It’s awful, but it does present opportunities and, crucially, some time to really think about what we are doing.

Having said that, the truth is we are best placed when risk is spread and, like any other economy or environment, diversity is key.

In our wonderful countryside, we have an asset than can provide sustenance, experience, enjoyment and tranquillity. This crisis may well mean that people think more carefully in future about travelling abroad and, as our supply chains are challenged, it may prove that over-reliance on food imports is unwise. It could be a win for both the traditional and the diversified.

So if, through all of this extraordinary and ghastly business, a wider understanding emerges that rural Britain is not the poor relation to global markets and urban society, but an asset brimming with opportunity, the long-term outlook may be more positive than we think.

Willy Browne-Swinburne is a Northumbrian landowner, farmer and businessman

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