I jumped at the chance, as whilst l love having a business in the countryside and am a country girl at heart l do feel that rural businesses are sometimes given a raw deal.
Supporting rural business and the rural economy was an aim of the former Labour government and proposals laid out by the new coalition government suggest that efforts in this area are likely to continue.
And with business organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses actively supporting companies in rural areas via their ‘Keep Trade Local’ manifesto, it should now be easier than ever to run a rural business.
So why do businesses like my jewellery company, hailed by government-run organisations as a great example of a successful rural craft business, still struggle with seemingly insignificant issues?
I chose to start my business in the countryside because l wanted a location that was easy for people to drive to, close to the motorways so they can reach us easily from all over the country and close to the airports as I was already getting quite a few enquiries from overseas.
It is also easier to park in the countryside compared to urban areas, there are no one-way systems to negotiate and hardly any traffic, just the occasional stop at the village pond to allow ducks to cross the road or stop for a passing tractor.
Plus, being creative people, the natural forms around us are very inspiring. Rents can also be a little lower (although not much lower!) and I feel that employing local people and supporting local businesses like village shops and pubs is a good thing too.
Over the coming months, l’ll be airing some of the issues l face on a daily basis as the director of a rural business, issues that cause significant problems and detract from the real business of running my company! Starting today with signage…
Getting to find you
Signage is a big problem. In fact, as a rural business, we aren’t allowed any signage to help people find us.
What is the point of everybody thinking we are great if nobody can locate us?
When my studio in Halls Green near Weston, Herts, opened, I noticed other businesses had erected tasteful signs near to the main road outside the village directing people to the village itself. ‘Great idea’, I thought. I checked with the farmer who owns the land and put my own sign up.
However, I soon started to receive letters from the council telling me this is illegal. I had no idea, so l looked into it and discovered there is no way a rural business can have a small sign without breaking the law.
I quickly approached our parish council and raised the matter. They, and the rest of the village, had no problem with my sign but it remained illegal.
I suggested that the parish council become involved and sought permission for a ‘come to Weston’ sign, which would include a list of attractions and businesses in the village. This would serve to replace four separate signs with just one that might just be approved.
They thought this was a great idea. However, three-and-a-half years’ later approval is still being finalised.
In another attempt at making it easier for our customers to find us, some often travelling from miles away, l started putting out an A board.
I made sure it looked tasteful and clean, just white and black with a purple border. Classy and clear. All great, or so I thought.
I know now that it is in fact illegal for a rural business to put up an A board at the side of the road. This may make sense in an urban location where it could be a hazard but in Weston, there is a wide grass verge next to the pavement leaving plenty of room for my little, classy A board.
Nobody in the village minded. Nobody, that is, until the person who lived in the house closest to the board wanted to sell his house.
To cut a long story short, he began dumping my A board into a ditch and when a neighbour tipped me off l went to his house to discuss it with him. Once l’d been shouted at, threatened and thoroughly upset by his reaction l realised there would be no reasoning with him and walked away.
My first experience of an uptight villager!
Soon after a highways enforcement officer arrived at my door to tell me that l needed to retrieve my board and must not put it up again.
So what to do next? After much thought and deliberation, more than should be spent on signage really but past experience had affected me, l decided on a small sign, about a foot square, to be placed in the verge over a mile away from the nearest house and a few fields away from our business.
But, when a council representative noticed it on his way home from work l was faced yet again with an instruction to remove it as it was illegal. Back to square one l went.
Customers were still getting lost in the village trying to find us. I finally realised that we might be entitled to a brown sign. We were, after all, members of the English Tourist Board. Applying for a brown sign was a long and drawn-out process. Nearly two years later, we finally had a small brown sign.
Since then, a few years have gone by and actually people rarely get lost now. But this is more to do with the growing popularity of sat nav than our brown sign, which is easily missed. But people do still struggle sometimes and we really could do with more signage.
Also, customers visit the studio regularly who just live down the road and are very cross not to have discovered us before. They had no idea that we were here until they did an internet search.
There is something deeply wrong with the rule that rural businesses are not allowed to erect any signs to help customers find them.
Luckily for us we are a tourist attraction and managed to get a brown sign. But most rural businesses aren’t a tourist attraction so what are they supposed to do?