Adaptability and robust IT systems allowed Bell Ingram to navigate Covid Challenge
Way back in January the only cloud on the horizon was Brexit and the impact it would have on both our business and those of our clients, and it was hard, if not impossible, to think that anything else would dominate the year ahead.
Even then we had started to feel a negative impact on our tourism-based clients, who were seeing reduced overseas visitor numbers, and the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit did not bode well for our agricultural clients within the livestock sector with sheep in particular being highlighted to be at risk.
In the background a virus had taken hold in a city in China we had never heard of. As Covid-19 slowly got a grip on Italy and then the UK, we realised that not only was every business threatened but each and every one of us too.
We were very lucky, firstly we have a robust IT system that allowed remote working for everyone, and secondly our client base was as protected as any sector could be from the worst that was to take place.
Our farming and estate clients needed us as much as before, but our utility clients probably needed us even more and the support services we provide to the latter became more important than ever. For example, the demand on the electricity network increased substantially with millions of us being at home all day. This brought new challenges in network resilience and an increased demand for priority connections for government projects targeted at the fight against Covid-19.
The support from the contract staff Bell Ingram provides to the utility sector proved itself to be extremely welcome and it was all hands on deck. While a lot of the strategic work in the electricity sector was put on hold, the emphasis moved towards different work streams with safety and network resilience being at the forefront. This all required Wayleave support services and it was work that we could easily adapt to in the short term while working in the background on postponed strategic projects for the future.
Elsewhere, our historic investment in our IT paid dividends and we were able to vacate our offices overnight, ensuring that our service to clients was virtually uninterrupted. It is one thing to have “Contingency Plans”, but quite another to implement them, particularly when those plans only anticipated closing an individual office due to a foreseeable event such as fire or flood. We had at no point considered closing each and every office on the same day – but that is what we did, everything fell into place, and it worked seamlessly.
However we are adaptable and learn quickly. Since March not only have we become familiar with the furlough scheme, but the VAT payment deferral, Creative or Tourism Hardship Fund, Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund and Small Business Support Fund to name a few. Our teams have striven to service our clients throughout this period, giving them the best advice and just being at their side when needed. We have not only stood by our clients, but by their tenants, looking after them and steering them in the direction of support and assistance. During this time, we have also coped with the normal day-to-day activities that occur. We issued all grazing licences as normal, completed all the IACS forms, organised woodland felling, planting and maintenance, we have issued wayleaves, and negotiated servitudes. In short, we have kept all of the balls in the air, something I am very proud of.
But while Covid-19 took central stage and we have all been watching, waiting and reacting to the next regulation or governmental guidance, Brexit has been simmering away in the background. The UK Government and EU negotiators have been locked in a tussle that will inevitably go down to the wire. So how is this going to impact our client base? In 2018 the EU accounted for about 60% of all UK food and drink exports, down from 70% five years ago. In a ‘no deal’ world all trading with the EU would be subject to WTO rules, with tariffs applied and border checks put in place. The consequence will inevitably be delays and expense.
In tandem, the Agriculture Bill has been working its way through the UK parliamentary process and is not without its controversy particularly in relation to the allegations of watering down of food and animal standards. Allowing the importation of lower grade goods from the US such as chlorine washed chicken and hormone fed beef don’t go down well with our indigenous agricultural system that has been built on quality and safety.
Predicting the future is always a risky business, but I think it’s fair to say that there will be no “back to normal” after the dust settles from Covid and Brexit. For this reason, adaptation and innovation are more important than ever in the rural sector.