A PACKAGE of financial measures designed to help farms and rural businesses was a preliminary move, Mr Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, stressed this week.

The measures include:

l increasing the government contribution to rate relief to 95pc for small businesses in areas suffering the greatest hardship; businesses can also apply for a temporary reduction in rateable value and councils may defer rate payments;

l a three-month extension for business rate appeals;

l the possibility of delaying income tax, National Insurance, PAYE and VAT payments;

l the small business service and banks will see how credit can be continued for small businesses, including the use of the small firms loan guarantee fund.

l job seeker's allowance may be available to employees and the self-employed who are out of work .

The major banks were keen to support their customers.

"They will look, case by case, at mechanisms such as extended credit and capital repayment holidays," said Mr Meacher, who encouraged customers with, or expecting, problems, to contact their bank manager quickly.

Mr Meacher said the government would match public donations already made.

On Tuesday Ms Hilary Armstrong, Local Government Minister, announced new rate relief for farm diversification and to village food shops.

Farm land and buildings used for other business purposes, with rateable values below £6,000, would get 50pc mandatory relief. Councils can raise that to 100pc. Village food shops with rateable values below £6,000 get 50pc relief.

Under secondary legislation the sole pub or petrol station in a village will receive 50pc mandatory relief where the rateable value is below £9,000. Councils can make this 100pc and can still give maximum relief to any business with a rateable value below £12,000.

The Conservative leader, Mr William Hague, has called for a £25m government rescue package to save tourist-reliant rural businesses.

Speaking to the D&S Times last Friday, the Richmond MP said: "The government underspent its budget this year by a billion pounds. I propose that £25m is released to local authorities. That would pay for one-third of all the tourist businesses in the country to have a six-month rates exemption."

Mr Hague also suggested a deferral on VAT, and reassurance from banks that they would not foreclose on businesses behind with mortgage or loan repayments.

He also wanted the government to give clear guidelines on country holidays, but stressed the need for caution on lifting restrictions on walking in unaffected areas.

Richmondshire ratepayers affected by the crisis have been urged to apply quickly for a reduction in their rateable values.

Coun Paul Cullen, chairman of the district council resources committee, said the authority was keen to help.

"Contact the valuation officer for Richmondshire as soon as possible to get an application form," he said. Even though early settlement was unlikely, as the full effects of the outbreak would not be known for some time, it was important to apply now to ensure reductions were backdated.

Application forms are available from the valuation officer at Windsor House, Cornwall Road, Harrogate, HG1 2PW, tel 01423 830800, or www.voa.gov.uk.

The district council also wants to hear from anyone with difficulty paying business rate instalments or council tax. Further information is available on 01748 829100 ext 231, 246 or 229, or from council and community offices.

A Hawes businessman, Mr Paul Wignall, who is managing director of Hawes-based optical accessories company Hilco Europe, has launched a £50,000 appeal specifically to help North Yorkshire farmers.

He decided he could not just stand by after seeing a local farmer having to destroy his livestock and livelihood which had taken years to build.

The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution will allocate the funds and payments should be made payable to "Hilco Farmers Aid" and sent to Barclays Bank, Yorkshire Agricultural Banking Team, PO Box 15, Market Place, Leyburn, North Yorkshire DL8 5YT.