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The British Horse Society has urged government to provide significant rates relief for all riding schools – rather than the selective scheme only for new establishments set up on farms.

The BHS, in response to government consultations, has pointed out that riding schools are suffering severe economic difficulties leading to closures.

The Society’s Riding Schools Approval office reports that a further 272 schools closed in the last 12 months. Currently the BHS has 715 approved schools on its list, compared with 774 in 1993. A survey conducted by the Association of British Riding Schools last year indicated a 21 per cent decline in numbers since 1988, with a current total of 2,371.

Mr John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and Environment Minister, has announced a proposal whereby new equestrian enterprises such as riding schools and trekking centres could receive 50 per cent rate relief, and up to 100 per cent in some cases, for the first five years, plus short cuts through planning regulations to use redundant farm buildings for such enterprises. This is intended to assist the farming industry which is hard hit economically, as a profitable form of diversification.

“We appreciate the difficulties of the farming industry and would like to see them alleviated, but we have pointed out to government that their proposals will provide tough new competition for existing riding schools leading to still more closures,” says Michael Clayton, Chairman of the BHS.

A BHS survey has shown that riding schools are suffering already from competition from unlicensed, uninsured yards, many of them do-it-yourself livery yards already proliferating on some farms.

Other factors are high business rates, imposition of the national minimum wage, lack of qualified staff, VAT, increasing fears of litigation by clients, and increasing competition from agricultural colleges running equine courses.

Mr Clayton went on: “We know the government has longer term plans for small business grants but these would not arrive in time to save riding schools faced by the new farms legislation next year. We have also pointed out to government that its proposals are only likely to accelerate the trend towards do-it-yourself-riding schools springing up in redundant farm buildings, which is already happening.

“Diversification into this market would damage the existing local providers of equestrian services, mainly riding schools and livery yards, for which demand is limited. The only way of achieving growth in this market in order to support new entrants is to improve the economic conditions for riding schools.”

The BHS has told the Department of the Environment (DETR) that it greatly regrets the omission from the government farm diversification proposals of rate relief for the breeding and rearing of horses and ponies to the point of sale.

The Society supports the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association in its view that if government wishes to encourage farmers into new fields of farming activity they should remove the obstacles in terms of planning and rates which prevents British farmers from entering this market.

The very limited rate relief currently available to studs, which amounts to about £1,000 off the rates bill, does not provide a significant incentive to farmers for such diversification.

“Our competitors on the continent enjoy far better taxation arrangements in producing sport horses which now dominate the market, to the detriment of the British home produced sport horses,” said Michael Clayton.

The BHS made the above points through the British Equestrian Federation and the British Horse Industry Confederation which is now making consultation responses to the DETR. The department is considering which options to take before enacting primary legislation on farm diversification in the new year.

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