Agritourism — a coronacoaster of a year
Our rural sector has a reputation for identifying and grasping opportunities, even in the toughest of times.
From the roll-out of locally supplied veg boxes during lockdown to the DIY modification of horse trailers into coffee bars, as restrictions eased the rural sector has risen, time and again, to meet the COVID-19 challenge.
The year started with great positivity for the rural short-term letting sector, with huge interest in the agritourism monitor farms, launched last year, driving growth. Then fast forward to the first lockdown in April, the response as ever was swift and positive.
Go Rural’s livestreamed “lambathon” in April allowed thousands of global viewers to tune in to watch lambs, sheepdogs and cows on farms. This showcased huge diversity and grew to cover all sorts of enterprises including walks with alpacas and live calving.
There was good news too in June with the launch of Scottish Agritourism — representing the interests of the agritourism sector and sitting under the umbrella of the Scottish Tourism Alliance.
Indeed, VisitScotland figures showed four in five (78%) of Scotland residents who took a UK holiday or short break between dates in mid-July and mid-August, took it in their home country.
However, the research then adds confidence has since dropped, primarily driven by government restrictions saying only 22% of those intending to take a trip between November to March have started planning, with just 15% having booked.
From glamping and farm shops to holiday lets and camping sites, for years, farmers and rural business owners having been implementing new ways to generate additional income streams.
The opportunity is significant: this approach can help farmers grow their businesses, allows for succession and strengthens balance sheets. It is, however, a complex process that must start with clear expectations of who, and what, the venture involves.
Considerations that call for specialist advice cover a huge range of topics including tax, employment, tenancy, succession planning, business structures, health and safety, terms of business and brand protection.
If you operate a self-catering business or holiday let that’s available for 140 days or more a year and actually let for 70 days or more, you may be liable to pay business rates.
You may also be liable if you run a guest house or a significant bed and breakfast operation for more than six people at any one time, regardless of how many days your house or rooms are available.
There’s change afoot too for short-term lets with the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019, amending the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997.
Launching the consultation in September, Scottish Government housing minister Kevin Stewart said short-term lets offer flexible and affordable accommodation and have positively contributed to the tourism industry. He added though, in certain areas, they can lead to problems.
Section 17 added to the 1997 act allows a planning authority to designate all or part of its area as a short-term let control area. In these areas, using a residential house for short-term lets would be a material change of use and would need planning permission.
A sub-section provides the planning authority can vary or cancel a designation as a short-term letting control area.
The agritourism sector has criticised the move as heaping pressure on the already-beleaguered tourism industry.
In a letter to Mr Stewart in October, 38 signatories recommended the government “immediately pause” its work on the regulations to give the industry time to recover from the “devastating” consequences of COVID-19.
Time will tell if this regulation is a step too far for this burgeoning sector and whether further planning considerations will ultimately put entrepreneurs off. The consultation is now closed and, with this secondary legislation due to be introduced in April next year, we’ll need to wait and see how things develop.
In the meantime, continued support from the public will be essential for many rural enterprises’ survival.