Rural Summit – the start-up obstacle race

An ARC News Service  report. – There was considerable emphasis at the Rural Summit at Tennants Auction Centre in Leyburn on November 19, 2014, on the need to be innovative and entrepreneurial during a time of austerity. But for Gillian Harrison of Wensleydale Ice Cream there have been many obstacles to overcome because the farm where the business is based is in the Yorkshire Dales National Park with its often opposing ideologies concerning conservation and the wellbeing of residents.  David Smurthwaite, the Rural Officer of the Local Enterprise Partnership warned that it would be difficult to encourage people to come to the area if there wasn’t a range of opportunities, and Rita Lawson explained how Richmondshire District Council was trying to encourage economic development. Those who took part in the discussion included David Butterworth (chief executive, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority), Tony Hoile of Dairy Co,  David Hartley (Managing Director of Wensleydale Dairy Products), David Poole and Richmondshire District councillor Fleur Butler.


“It has cost me personally very dear – mentally, physically and financially,” Gillian Harrison said when describing a little of what had happened since her dairy farming family in Thornton Rust, Wensleydale, had decided to convert a traditional barn close to the A684 into an ice-cream parlour.  (Above – Gillian Harrison with North Yorkshire County councillor John Blackie at the Rural Summit. Coun Blackie is also the leader of Richmondshire District Council)

This began after May 2013 when the government’s deregulation of parts of the planning system included allowing for the change of use of agricultural barns without planning permission. David Butterworth told the meeting during discussion time that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA)  had disagreed with Mrs Harrison’s plans for Hardbanks barn.

She stated: “In simple terms because of where we live we have endured a much more uphill struggle than if we lived in a town. Indeed, if we lived in an urban area we would be up and running by now. It would be considered that a new use for an old building was an excellent idea especially if it created employment.

“The fact that we are surrounded by grass has created a real problem. In our minds we feel qualified to make a judgement with all the hours we put in – we and our ancestors have put into this land – we live here because we love it, enjoy the view and the landscape and not to reap the financial rewards that other areas could provide. We want to have a successful business on our own merits and not be shot down before we have the opportunity. Dales farmers play a hugely important role in the man-made landscape that you see and without us would this be what tourists would want to visit?”

She said that in Thornton Rust there were 89 people of voting age of which 66 per cent were retired and 32 per cent were employed on the four farms. There were only seven children under the age of 16 and none under the age of 10.

“In the last 68 months the Defra milk price has been above the cost of production for only six months. My husband works 80 hours a week and certainly doesn’t get a minimum wage. There are stone walls to maintain and the fields are smaller so you can’t have the bigger equipment so the costs are higher.” As the winters are up to two months longer additional fodder has to be imported but the transport costs are high due to not being able to use articulated lorries on the narrow roads.

To try and augment the family’s earnings she had set up a small book keeping service and a retail business. The recession which began in 2011 had, however, taken a terrible toll on online retail businesses. So they needed to find another source of income besides that from their herd of Jersey cows. They spent a considerable amount on setting up an ice cream production unit at their farm and their customer base has been growing. But they soon realised that in order to make a good living they had to sell a proportion of their Wensleydale Ice Cream directly to consumers.

They felt that a modern use of a barn which would otherwise fall down would be an excellent solution. “We would love to work with the authorities to deliver a positive outcome,” she said.

When I asked why it had taken so long to move forward with converting the barn she said: “Ideology quite frankly. Some peoples’ perceptions of what’s a good idea isn’t someone else’s. And when you get those two huge forces coming together it creates a lot of friction, a lot of effort and a lot of time.”

In reply to another question she explained: “We want to offer our children the opportunity that we have had (but) in modern times you have got the older generation living longer. They have got all their money invested in that holding. In our particular instance we have three generations on one holding.

“In the last 10 years a herd of 132 Jersey cows has gone from being an above average size to now being the national average, and probably in the next ten years it will become smaller than the national average. We simply do not have the opportunity to expand. Hence the reason we are looking into diversification.”

She described the current worsening situation with milk prices as being very scary especially as they approached winter.

Tony Hoile of Dairy Co and the Princes Initiative said that dairy farms in England produced only 50 per cent of the milk that the country needed and the rest was imported. He warned that if the volatility in the milk market was not stopped this country would not have a sustainable milk producing industry.

David Hartley, Managing Director of Wensleydale Dairy Products,  noted that many of the 45 farms producing milk for the Creamery had only 78 cows, which was half the national average. This showed how critical this company was to the viability of dairy farming in Wensleydale.

Rita Lawson (RDC economic development officer) said that Superfast Broadband was a welcome boost to business and saw it as having an integral part to play in the district economic strategy. The objective was to stimulate economic development and local employment; and attract entrepreneurs and small businesses.

She listed some of the developments the RDC had already secured funding for and said it had identified potential projects. These included the Weatherald’s site at Askrigg where they wanted to see the potential of that employment land being unlocked so as to create more jobs in the Dales.

“As we’ve heard already the council can’t do that on its own. We need to work in partnership. So we need to strengthen those partnerships that we’ve got already. We need to work with the National Park, the leaders, the councils, the businesses, associations and community groups that have an interest in the dales. And encourage people to volunteer or be able to offer jobs in the small tourist attractions. We also intend where necessary to work closely with businesses such as Gillian’s and to help them develop their ideas … so that they can bring their dreams to fruition and also sustain their farms or whatever in the dales,” she said.

She added that she was available to anyone who wanted to discuss business ideas. “That’s where I see my role – talking to people and being a catalyst and hopefully bringing those opportunities forward.”

David Smurthwaite (Rural Officer of the Local Enterprise Partnership), warned that it was not easy to encourage people to come to an area if there was not a range of opportunities, little choice of jobs, poor infrastructure and insufficient affordable housing. Business development he believed needed to be focussed on the market towns and also on Catterick Garrison.

He said: “Isolated small steps get swamped – so we need to take small steps together to have a long lasting impact.”

During the discussion session  Richmondshire District councillor Fleur Butler commented that a full economic package was needed to encourage businesses to want to come to the dales. As a mother of four children she wondered how they would find decent jobs and be able to move back to the place she loved. “I’m not confident they will ever be able to access the council houses, or the affordable housing because their incomes will be slightly too high. They certainly can’t afford the (open market) houses.” She believed that more should be done to encourage self-employment and entrepreneurial activity.

David Poole told the Summit: “The dynamics of the dales area are changing. The reason is that the children and young people are being given aspirations that are excellent but unfortunately the opportunities to reach those are not here – and they will go away.” He said that they needed, therefore, to look at ways of encouraging business and employment opportunities.

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