Coronavirus: Guidance on environment and rural issues

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On this page you'll find advice on contacting Natural England and the Environment Agency, and rural concerns such as planning, policing and rural crime, energy supplies, broadband and mobile coverage, water and wastewater bills and infrastructure developments.

This information will be updated regularly and more detailed briefings on some of the topics are below or will be published in due course.

Last updated: 7 October 2020

Looking for more advice? These pages contain more information related to COVID-19:

Government support for businesses Farm business concerns Public rights of way Fly-tipping Wellbeing on farm Supply chain issues

Farmed environment issues

Contacting Natural England

All Natural England (NE) staff have moved to 100% home working, all fieldwork is suspended and all National Nature Reserve (NNR) facilities (car parks, visitor centres, etc.) are now closed. NE will also be discouraging people from travelling to NNRs, though local visitors may still use them for exercise, as long as they follow the new social distancing guidance. You should still be able to reach any regular NE contact you have by phone or email but all NE offices are now closed. 

Where you do not have an existing contact but wish to get in touch with NE, you should use the customer enquiries service: 

Following NFU meetings with the chief executives of Natural England and the RPA, NE announced on 22 April that it is adapting the way it gives advice to support farmers, land managers and rural businesses during these unprecedented times. NE advisers are able to give advice without always needing to visit, in particular where they have worked with the farmer before. 

NE has also told the NFU it is working with the RPA on making payments and helping customers submit their claims and applications.  

Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship: To enable land managers to develop Higher Tier applications in time for the 1 May application deadline, NE staff are able to provide advice remotely (by phone or video call) on applications, so that schemes can be progressed in the absence of a site visit. NE is also developing a range of processes looking at how to best use technology including remote sensing, digital solutions and virtual meetings to support Countryside Stewardship 2020 applications. 

Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship: NE will be supporting applicants through an off-farm advice programme. Applicants can contact an adviser and book a clinic session. Applicants will receive advice on the options most appropriate to their holding and top tips on ensuring applications are correct. 

Catchment Sensitive Farming: NE will also continue to offer technical advice and support on Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) by remote/digital means, including where farmers need to make Countryside Stewardship Mid-Tier applications. Contact the CSF team as usual on 020 8026 2018. 

Find more information here. 

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Contacting the Environment Agency

The EA will: 

  • Continue to respond effectively in the event of a major flood, pollution or other incidents. 
  • Continue flood defence construction work.
  • Continue inspections of flood risk assets damaged in Storms Ciara and Dennis using local inspectors. Work is being prioritised to protect the most at-risk communities.
  • Continue to carry out regulatory visits to sites that could cause serious environmental harm, where required. During the height of the pandemic, physical routine inspections in the agriculture sector were suspended. However, from the end of May agricultural regulation was planned to recommence in a limited format. This means one that avoided physical inspections, but allowed EA officers to engage with farmers when necessary, preferably by phone, email or letter.  The next phase, which will commence in the coming weeks (as written at the end of June), will be to carry out socially distant site inspections and associated interventions and processes and the collection of evidence. EA staff will be provided with all the necessary guidance, risk assessments and safe systems of work.
  • Support businesses who face their own operational difficulties. 
  • Start the process of billing for annual permit/licence and other charges in April. The Agency is encouraging anyone struggling to pay fees to contact its agents, Shared Services Connected Ltd (SSCL) to discuss. It may be possible to set up a payment plan as a result of your circumstances. To contact SSCL, the preferred method is email: ZWFfZnNjX2N1c3RvbWVyc2VydmljZXNAZ292LnNzY2wuY29t but you can also call: 0345 300 1861. 

Where the EA has staff on the ground, such as visiting sites, they will adhere to the latest Public Health England guidelines. It is also ensuring its contractors are aware of site and people restrictions and are following the correct procedures.

The EA expects everyone that it regulates to take all reasonable steps to comply with all relevant environmental legislation, and prepare for any foreseeable impacts as far as practical to reduce the impacts on people and the environment. It is monitoring the situation closely and will consider the appropriate regulatory response to any unavoidable non-compliance in line with its enforcement and sanctions policy and taking a number of points into consideration set out in an Environment Agency Regulatory response statement. In addition, the agency has also published some time limited COVID-19 regulatory position statements (RPSs) in relation to certain regulatory requirements. These cover specific circumstances where the agency is relaxing normal regulatory requirements. This is to avoid increasing risks to the environment or human health during the particular circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak. Each COVID-19 RPS sets out when it applies and the conditions you must comply with. You must still comply with all your other regulatory requirements.

All the RPSs are accessible by clicking here to visit the website.

The last postal applications for environmental permits or licences that the Environment Agency National Permitting Service was able to process before the lockdown were those received by 18 March for waste and installations, 19 March for water resources, and 20 March for water quality work.

If you have sent the Agency a postal application since then, please resubmit it by email, if you can, to:

Over the coming weeks and months the Environment Agency will be taking a cautious and incremental approach to returning staff into offices, where there are specific and urgent tasks needing to be done there. There is no date yet for when permitting staff will be able to return to offices and begin dealing with post. When it is possible, they will process stored post in the order that received and will incorporate any complete applications within it into work queues based on the date that received them.

It will take the Agency some time to catch up with a backlog of post. You can contact the Agency’s National Permitting Service by email (as above), or by calling our Customer Contact Centre on 03708 506 506.

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Contacting the Forestry Commission

Following the latest government announcements on 22 September 2020 on coronavirus, the Forestry Commission has reviewed their working arrangements. This has included:

  • the use of site visits for grant, regulation and plant health work
  • face to face meetings
  • the controls for accessing FC offices

Following this review, the FC are still carrying out site visits to deliver grant, regulation and plant health work and for enforcement investigations. However, they have stepped back from most office use and from most face to face meetings, following the government’s latest advice to work from home where they can. 

Due to the limited number of staff present in their offices the FC are still unable to take telephone calls. Please read their latest operational update on these arrangements and to find out how best to contact them.

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Pest management

On 21 May the Deputy Chief Constable of Durham, Dave Orford (the national lead on firearms licensing), clarified the position with the government on shooting in England during the pandemic.

Police forces are being advised that shooting can take place under the current regulations as long as social distancing guidelines are adhered to. This guidance includes pest control, in line with the restrictions and within the law.

Further information on legally controlling pest birds with General Licences can be found here.

Shooting of certain wild birds for the protection of food crops or livestock under the terms of a General Licence is permissible. Also, using a contractor to carry out pest management should be acceptable, as the contractor isn’t able to do their job at home. They should abide by distancing rules. 

As a farmer, landowner, or tenant it is important to consider a number of influencing factors before you carry out pest control on your land. 

Individual circumstances will vary depending on the farming enterprise or location etc, so it is down to the individual to make a reasonable decision and ensure work is carried out safely under government guidelines. 

Factors to consider:

  • If you are not the landowner then check the occupier, landowner, or authorised person is happy for you to be on their land 
  • Is the pest management critical? Is there reasonable threats to crops, livestock, and wildlife which requires immediate action? 
  • Evaluate the safety of the situation based on surroundings. Are you able to maintain social distancing rules, are there increased members of public using ROW, is there a risk of shots being fired reported to the local police?  

Firearms licencing: Farmers should be aware that police forces are beginning to reallocate staff away from non-essential functions. There will also be increased pressure on GPs and this may cause delays in the firearms licensing process (some police forces have now made GP verification of the licence application compulsory). 

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Moorland burning

The England and Wales Wildfire Forum “recommends that anyone planning prescribed burning should carry out a risk assessment (see the guidance) and now this must also consider the reduced availability of Fire and Rescue Service resources to respond to any escaped fires. Also, the clear message from government is for everyone to stay home unless involved in essential activity. Prescribed burning is unlikely to be considered an essential activity”. Guidance on heather and grass burning can be found in the burning code. The burning season dates run from:

  • 1 October to 15 April in upland areas (severely disadvantaged areas)
  • 1 November to 31 March in other areas

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Changes to Flood Warning Service

The Environment Agency has proposed some changes to the Flood Warning Service so they can continue to issue alerts and warnings wherever reasonable and practicable in the current circumstances. These changes are also intended to preserve their ability to provide warnings where most necessary and to support their activities during the Coronavirus pandemic period to protect lives and livelihoods.

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Rural issues

Will there be problems with energy supplies?

Energy networks may need to reallocate staff shifts due to illness which could affect the continuity of energy supplies. The NFU would be concerned if repairs are prioritised in urban areas over rural areas. NFU Energy will provide advice (i.e. ensure emergency generator is serviced, ensure fuel supply).

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Will there be problems with broadband or mobile coverage?

With mobile connectivity now very much part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, mobile operators (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) are working hard to support all their customers.

Click here for more information on how mobile operators are dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Broadband could become less reliable and our sparser and rural services could come under pressure making it more difficult to access to emergency and health services. The Chancellor has just suggested that people contact their local authorities for more advice and they will be being encouraged to provide this online, as phone advice will be more limited.

There is limited rural information about how sparse rural areas could be affected differently here:

Click here for LGA advice on coronavirus:

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Policing and rural crime

Impact on rural crime

The NFU understands that the police are planning for disruption, staff shortages and an increase in criminal behaviour. If rural business premises are left empty there is concern they could become a target. There could also be a threat of theft to livestock and poultry caused by perceived food shortages and a potential rise in fly-tipping incidents due to waste and recycling centres closing. The NFU is raising concerns with police leaders.

The National Police Coordination Centre (NPoCC) is coordinating the police response to the COVID-19 crisis. The NPoCC has set up a Police Food and Retail Liaison Team (PFRLT) to focus on all policing matters relating to production, storage, transport, sale and delivery for the food during the crisis. 

The NFU has been in contact with the PFRLT and the NFU will feed back any issues or trends in rural crime as we become aware of them. 

The NFU is also liaising with the National Food Crime Unit (a dedicated law enforcement function of the Food Standards Agency). They are also keen to hear about any threats or vulnerabilities emerging or possible criminal activity which may affect consumers and farm businesses.

Police guidance on what constitutes a reasonable excuse to leave the place where you live 

Regulation 6 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 states no person may leave the place where they live without a reasonable excuse.

The NFU has been concerned with Crown Prosecution Service guidance that it is reasonable to drive to the countryside and walk “where far more time is spent walking than driving”. The NFU has already raised concerns about the amount of people taking to the countryside amid the coronavirus outbreak. See our page on public rights of way guidance here.

The NFU, National Rural Crime Network, CLA and Countryside Alliance wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice Robert Buckland MP asking for a review of the guidance. Copies of this letter were also sent to the Chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, Chief Constable Martin Hewitt, and the Chief Executive of the College of Policing, Mike Cunningham. Click here to read more about this, and to read the letter in full.

Following changes to the Health Protection Regulations, the College of Policing produced new guidance on 13 May.   

In England people can now: 

  • Visit public open spaces alone for recreation to promote their physical, mental or emotional wellbeing.  
  • Visit public open spaces with one member of another household for the above purpose (or, as previously, alone or with members of their household).  
  • Take exercise with one member of another household (or, as previously, alone or with members of their household). 

In Wales the regulation remains as: 

  • Unlimited exercise permitted each day only within an area local to the place where the person is living; alone, with other members of the person’s household or with the person’s carer. 

In England the following activities are not reasonable excuses to leave your home: 

  • To go on holiday, this includes to visit and stay overnight at a holiday home or second home. 
  • To visit the homes of friends and family (exceptions include to protect a vulnerable person, for medical purposes or to escape risk of harm). 
  • Travelling to outdoor spaces in Wales and Scotland for recreation. 

Click here for further information in the College of Policing's 'Policing the pandemic' guidance note

Action from rural Police and Crime Commissioners

As part of the Board of the NRCN, the NFU has written to the Defra Secretary of State expressing concern with the impact of COVID-19 on rural communities:

This letter highlights concerns, including:

  • Continued use of Rights of Way, which are still being used by large numbers of people.
  • Criminals capitalising on police attention being diverted to target rural businesses via the rural road network.
  • Increases in domestic abuse should be expected.
  • The closure of waste and recycling centres will inevitably drive even greater criminality in the waste sector, including fly-tipping. 
  • The viability or rural businesses and food security more generally.
  • Differing approaches across the country regarding slaughter and livestock markets.

The police approach to dealing with coronavirus restrictions

Because of the new restrictions, no person may leave the place where they are living without a reasonable excuse.

Reasonable excuses include:

  • obtaining basic necessities and supplies for the essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household, or for the household of
  • to take exercise alone or with other members of their household
  • seeking medical assistance
  • providing emergency assistance
  • providing care or assistance to a vulnerable person
  • travelling for the purpose of work or to provide voluntary or charitable services, where it is not reasonably possible to work from,
  • or provide those services from home

To deal with these restrictions, policing is adopting a four-phase approach

Engage: Officers will initially encourage voluntary compliance.
Explain: Officers will stress the risks to public health and to the NHS.
Encourage: Officers will encourage compliance and emphasise the benefits to the NHS by staying at home, how this can save lives and reduce risk for more vulnerable people in society.
Enforce: If faced with non-compliance, officers will, if necessary and proportionate:

  • direct those without a reasonable excuse to go home, using reasonable force if needed
  • issue a penalty notice for disorder (PND) of £60, to discourage further non-compliance
  • use prohibition notices to stop public gatherings
  • use existing licencing powers where businesses and organisations fail to comply

Further information is here.

How the police will enforce travel restrictions

The Department for Transport (DfT) have published guidance on dealing with travel restrictions.

Agricultural workers often travel to work in groups and guidance on this is included.

The DfT say that in general, multiple occupancy vehicles taking people to and from work should be permitted to continue their journey without being impeded.

The current regulations state that no person may participate in a gathering in a public place of more than two people. As a car on the road is in a public place, more than two people in the car could be seen as a gathering. However, an offence is only committed if the gathering is without reasonable excuse. The regulations state that an exception is when the “gathering is essential for work purposes”.

The NFU has produced an essential journey certificate for members and their employees to carry with them when travelling to/from work or between different sites. This can help demonstrate to the police that workers are travelling for essential work.

More guidance is here, and includes:

  • Vehicles engaged in the food supply chain should be permitted to work as normally as usual.
  • There is no system of passes to show who should or should not be working. If the vehicle has a load then it is probably working. If police officers are suspicious of an unloaded vehicle then they should consider that it could also be working (i.e. vehicles travel empty to pick up loads or return empty after delivering a load)
  • Everyone who can work from home should do so. Where that is not possible, people should go into work where it is safe, and they are not symptomatic, following relevant PHE guidance.
    • Haulage drivers, managers, warehouse staff, including agency staff, and all other logistics professionals need to continue to go about their business to keep supply chains moving.
    • Tyre fitters, engineers who need to maintain/ repair equipment and mechanics are examples of people who cannot, normally, work from home. These occupations like many others are vital to the smooth and efficient running of supply chains and they should not be impeded from doing work or while travelling to and from
  • Motorway Service Areas should remain open to provide fuel and toilet and shower facilities and take away food services.

TAKE CARE: Anti-5G posters

Energy networks have been made aware that some posters protesting against 5G have blades or needles placed behind them, seemingly in an attempt to injure anyone who attempts to remove them.

These posters have been found on telephone infrastructure, electricity cabinets and lamp posts.

NFU members are advised to treat these posters with caution.

This comes amid a rise in the number of attacks on engineers, fuelled by a conspiracy theory wrongly linking 5G and coronavirus. Claims the wireless technology helps spread the virus have been condemned by scientists.

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Planning and infrastructure issues

Following a Written Ministerial Statement on 13 May by the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick MP has confirmed there have been further changes to the planning system to allow more online working and online consultation (until 30 December) where it is not practical to display site notices, send letters or put adverts in the paper.

Local planning authorities can now also choose to defer planning payments otherwise resulting from Community Infrastructure Levy or section 106 agreements.

The Housing Secretary is also promoting a new Charter for Safe Working Practice to allow building work to continue while still complying with coronavirus social distancing regulations.

Planning applications and planning appeals

Planning applications and planning appeals are taking longer to determine. Members who need their planning permission approved quickly, to comply with legislation/funding or supplier demand, or to accommodate change brought about by the Coronavirus outbreak should highlight this to their local planning authority. 

Local Authorities may otherwise ask for further time to consider permitted development and planning application submissions, if you cannot agree applications may be refused. Decisions may be taken by officers, rather than Planning Committees, although some online planning meetings and inquiries are being trailed. All services are currently operating online with offices closed. Local authority websites will have bespoke guidance, links to planning applications and local plans and email addresses for case officers. 

Natural England may accept digital evidence on the environmental impacts of projects where surveys or other environmental information cannot be provided due to the COVID-19 lockdown. This will be judged in a case by case basis; a similar approach is expected from other statutory consultees. 

Planning consultations for Local and Neighbourhood plan documents, are currently online only. All inquiries are delayed, while all referendums on Neighbourhood Plans and Council elections are being delayed to May 2021.  

Planning appeals, rights of way and Commons Act 2006 cases

Where possible, planning appeals are progressing using photograph or video evidence instead of a site visit. The Planning Inspectors can now attend appeal site visits where they can safely do so under social distancing regulations. Decisions are still being made on written representation appeals.

The Planning Inspectorate has started trailing virtual hearings with the government also announcing that it would expect all hearings can be held online within weeks. All new appeals and appeal information should be submitted online.

National Infrastructure Projects

Updates of all projects are available on the Planning Inspectorate website.  

Permitted development right to offer takeaway and delivery facilities

In England, updated government guidance was published on Friday 27 March, following the introduction of the new permitted development right to offer takeaway and delivery facilities. Businesses wishing to offer these services can apply to their local planning authority to offer these services up to 23 March 2021. 

In Wales, there are no temporary permitted development rights, but the advice is that planning applications directly responding to COVID-19 should be prioritised as should ‘some applications to maintain food supplies. 

New permitted development right allows local authorities and health authorities emergency rights to deal with coronavirus outbreak

Local authorities and health authorities can use a new part 12A permitted development right on their own land and buildings, and others land and premises they can temporarily lease. In theory the permitted development right can be applied more broadly to help food supply chains if the health authority or/the local authority thought this was part of the response they needed to help deal with the national emergency. 

It allows for the change of use of existing buildings and land, the erection of temporary buildings or structures for associated storage facilities, distribution centres for food and other commodities and for the change of use of existing buildings The permitted development right can be used in National Parks and AONB’s, with some detailed restrictions set out in the legislation. 

The temporary use can last until 30 December 2020. A full planning permission would be needed to retain the use beyond this time. When the temporary use ceases, the building or land will return to its original planning use. 

Government clarifies holiday accommodation can be used for critical workers. 

Government guidance published on 13 May, has confirmed that holiday accommodation including hotels, hostels, B&Bs, holiday rentals, campsites and boarding houses can provide services to any critical worker that is part of the effort to deal with coronavirus. This includes people involved in the production, processing, sale, and distribution of food. 

Changes to local authority meetings and elections

New regulations came into force on 4 April allowing councils to hold public meetings virtually by using video or telephone conferencing technology. The regulations will be in force until 7 May 2021 and apply to all local, combined and national park authorities. Click here for more information on this at the website.

The government is also working to bring in new law so that by-elections, local polls and referendums cannot be held before 6 May 2021. The Coronavirus Act 2020 has already postponed local and Police and Crime Commissioner elections scheduled in the UK for Thursday 7 May 2020 until 6 May 2021.

Updates on current infrastructure schemes:

The situation on 6 April is as follows: 

Highways England  

A14: HE continues working with revised methods of work any further lock down. Given the criticality of the road as a strategic link for ferry ports and local services, hospitals, etc. HE are trying to get all lanes open and the local access road. HE are about three weeks away from doing this. HE have stated there will be extensive works following this which they understand will be delayed given that all of their back office teams are now off site and have restricted capacity to complete. 

Works are continuing with reinstatement and accommodation works for NFU members and landowners. 

A303 Stonehenge: HE has confirmed that they have stopped all survey activities on site and will not undertake any further surveys between now and end of April. However, they are currently reviewing the situation on a case by case basis to assess what can be completed safely in line with emerging governmental guidance. 

HM4 Smart Motorway: HE is following specific advice regarding construction work on highways projects. Currently the works are continuing on the M4 project and HE will continue to follow and respond to the advice from Government.  

HS2 Phase 1: HS2 confirmed to the NFU on 26 March:

‘To ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of our workforce and the communities in which we are working, only construction sites that can maintain Government guidelines and are critical to the delivery of HS2 will remain operational. Those sites still working are doing so because they are confident they are operating within PHE guidelines and will be monitored and remain under constant review.’

The NFU received a further update from HS2 on 2 April:

Contractors are limiting the amount of people working on site to around 10 people per site. On the central section, contractors are remobilising with the minimal amount of people being onsite and additional protocols and social distancing measures being in place. There is less of a site presence in the northern section, however small-scale targeted work is continuing.

The NFU has requested that contractors have appropriate policies in place where there is a need to travel through farmyards and that contact must be made with the landowner before access is taken.

Surveys are also ongoing. The NFU has spoken to HS2 about the actions HS2 and contractors will follow before access is taken to carry out a survey.

  • A notice will be served with a plan as is normal practice to notify that access is to be taken. This should be received 7 days before any access is taken.
  • A phone call or an email (if that is the preferred method of contact) to the landowner will take place 48 hours before access is taken. (If contact as not been made 48hrs before the survey is to take place access can be refused). The contractor should provide the following details:
    • Type of survey and why it is essential (This could be a newt or bat survey which is time critical).
    • How access will be taken.
    • If access is required through the farmyard or along the farm drive this has to be specifically agreed with the landowner.
    • If anyone is self- isolating or is on the high-risk register this must be made known and any areas of specific concern. How access is taken and at what time must be agreed so that there is no risk of anyone self -isolating coming into contact with a contractor.
    • If there are any issues after the contractor has phoned, contact should be made to the Agricultural Liaison Officer.

HS2 Phase 2a: All contractors on Phase 2a have paused activity. Surveys will take place over the summer months on Phase 2a.

HS2 Phase 2b: HS2’s contractors are not undertaking any surveys at the moment but may start these again mid to late April and only where they have existing Licence Agreements in place. This could now change as fresh Government guidelines emerge. In terms of new sites or new access licences there is no activity planned until after the Secretary of State announces a consultation which is planned for the end of June 2020. There may be some Ground investigation (GI) licences, however, activity will not be undertaken until the Coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

HS2 Ltd updated the NFU on 6 April: HS2 are now looking to re mobilise sites in regard to construction. They are looking at no more than 10 people on site at a time and that all safety protocols in regard to Covid -19 will be followed. There are early works and main works contractors carrying out work. Agricultural Liaison Officers are still working, and an ALO should make contact with a landowner/occupier before any contractors start work on a site.

The NFU have highlighted to HS2 that contact will need to be made with any landowner/occupier to find out if anyone is self- isolating and that extra care and communication will be needed if contractors are having to access sites along a farm drive or through a farmyard.

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What help is available with water and wastewater bills? 

The Consumer Council for Water (CCW), the water watchdog, has produced some useful online advice on how farms and other businesses should deal with their water retailer where the business premises needs to close, or if it remains open but with reduced capacity and therefore less water consumption. 

The NFU is closely monitoring the situation with members’ ability to pay outstanding bills. 

If you are anxious about any invoice arrears, contact your retailer as soon as you can to discuss your options. We expect retailers to be willing to help their customers through a range of measures including payment holidays and halting debt collection. We expect retailers not to disconnect customers for missing payments. 

The NFU is submitting agricultural sector reports to CCW for use in its ongoing engagement with retailers and the regulator Ofwat. Evidence collected will help to ensure that customers are fairly treated and identify any changes needed to the billing process. 

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Click here to use the NFU's COVID-19 business impact service.

By using this form, farmers and growers can provide information on any business-critical issues they have encountered, or expect to encounter, arising from the COVID-19 outbreak. The NFU will log this information and use it in an anonymised format to flag the key issues agriculture and horticulture are facing to government on a daily basis. However, no personal data will be shared with the government. The service is for all farmers and growers across the UK.

Coronavirus: Updates and advice

 This news hub on NFUonline will be updated regularly to keep you up to date with what you need to know and how to deal with the various issues raised by coronavirus. Visit the hub.