PRESSURE is to be put on the government to ease the financial burden of rural businesses crippled by the foot-and-mouth crisis.

The newly formed Richmondshire council working group, set up last week to look at the effects of the disease on the district's economy, vowed to lobby ministers directly.

The group, which met in Richmond on Wednesday, wants the £12,000 rateable value ceiling for hardship relief raised, to ensure all hard-hit rural businesses benefit.

Members also urged the department of the environment, transport and the regions to increase its hardship relief contribution to 100pc. At the moment, local authorities must fund 25pc of payments to businesses with rateable values under £12,000 and 5pc to others.

There was also concern that government aid to sole village pubs and garages, proposed in the rural white paper, extended only to those with rateable values below £9,000.

That relatively low figure would remove many small rural businesses from the equation, said Coun Richard Good.

The group agreed the government should be urged to speed up the issue of animal movement licences.

Coun Kendall said: "In the 1967 outbreak, you went to the local policeman or vet for a licence and they knew where your land was and whether animals should be moved."

Ministry officials in Leeds and London did not have the benefit of local knowledge and this caused immense problems to farmers.

Coun Yvonne Peacock, working group chairman, said that, next to actually having the disease confirmed, this was the biggest issue affecting farmers.

The effect on all businesses, including the devastation in the tourism sector, was noted by members, who congratulated Mrs Pam Whittaker, tourism officer, and her team for getting information to accommodation providers, attractions and the public.

As part of the drive to ensure a good flow of information, group vice-chairman Coun Richard Dunn plans to spend time at one of the TICs to get a first hand view of the kind of questions staff are asked and the general perceptions of the public.

Mr Harry Tabiner, chief executive, said the council had taken the initiative since the district's first outbreak was confirmed at Hawes early in March.

The authority's depot on Richmond's Gallowfields trading estate had been licensed as a vehicle disinfecting centre following a request from Swaledale councillors James Kendall and Raymond Alderson, both farmers.

Bookings were taken on an hourly basis and a MAFF inspector was in attendance at the centre, one of only five in North Yorkshire. A £25 fee per vehicle covered the cost of equipment, disinfectant and staffing.

The working group backed a motion, passed by the most sparsely populated councils group, of which Richmondshire is a member. This urged the government to focus on bringing the disease under control; ensuring stock was slaughtered and removed within 24 hours of confirmation of the virus; recognising affected businesses would need long-term support; ensuring people were made aware of benefits available; assembling a long-term economic and social recovery package; settting up an foot-and-mouth scientific panel, and lobbying the EC for a Europe-wide recovery package.

l At a separate meeting, businesses in the upper dales were urged to ensure claims that they were suffering because of the crisis were backed with hard evidence.

The upper Swaledale and Arkengarthdale business association warned that proof would be required if rural communities were to have their bids for support taken seriously.

A meeting of the organisation in Reeth on Tuesday heard that Mr Jeremy Walker, North Yorkshire County Council chief executive, wanted to hear from firms which had had to lay off staff or cut working hours.

The meeting welcomed a suggestion by Mr William Hague, Conservative leader and Richmond MP, that the government should look at interest-free loans of up to £10,000 for struggling businesses.

l Richmondshire District Council announced it would defer all payment of business rate bills for two months. Instead of paying bills in ten monthly instalments from April 15, businesses may now make the first payment on June 15, with payment being completed in March 2002 instead of January.

Application forms for hardship relief are also available from the council's finance unit and further application forms for reductions in rateable value can be obtained from the valuation officer at Harrogate, tel 01423 830800 or via the website

l The Yorkshire Dales national park authority has seconded nine staff to the north's main MAFF livestock movement licensing centre at Leeds to help process application forms and answer farmers' questions about foot and mouth disease.

Other agencies, including English Nature and the environment agency, have also seconded staff to the Leeds office.