Rural firms fear the worst as work grinds to a halt on projects across the countryside
small builders servicing the rural market have been forced to suspend work, lay-off staff and look for jobs in the towns as the foot-and-mouth crisis deepens.

The worst hit area is North-east England, where the epidemic is thought to have started, but the disease has also stopped work on projects in the South-west.

Contractors in North Tyneside that rely on building, repairing and maintaining farm buildings or work on country estates have been forced to postpone jobs indefinitely.

TK Builders, a small firm based in Bellingham, Northumberland, has stopped work on seven jobs, laid off three of its 24 employees and expects to lose £60,000 of work from its £1m-a-year turnover.

Foot-and-mouth has been confirmed on a farm five miles from Bellingham.

Hexham-based roofing contractor Matthew Charlton (Slaters) has stopped work on 12 contracts worth a total of £85,000. It has a turnover of £2m. The firm has not laid off any staff and is replacing its lost work with jobs in local towns.

Ken Robinson, general manager of TK Builders, warned that the crisis could get worse.

He said: "I have laid off three men and if it keeps going, it will be more. I'm having to ring architects miles away in Newcastle and Carlisle to look for work. The prices I am doing at the moment are lower than normal. If I didn't do it, I would be laying more men off." Alan Chapman, general manager of Matthew Charlton, warned of increased competition for work in towns.

He said: "All those guys in the country will start looking at work in the town so prices will drop as everyone scrabbles for work. The longer it goes on, the worse it'll get." In South-west England, one Plymouth-based contractor has been forced to lay off 25 workers after three rural jobs were postponed. FMB regional director Jeremy Chapman said that if the crisis went on much longer, the workers would be made redundant. The builder is now asking other local FMB members for work in a bid to keep the staff.

Firms brace for rush of legal action

Lawyers have flagged up long-term problems for housebuilding in rural areas as a result of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. These centre on the lack of access to rural areas, resulting in delays starting on site and therefore delays in completing and selling buildings. The Manchester office of solicitor Hammond Suddards Edge sent out a briefing to clients last week warning firms to look carefully at contracts before starting work. It advises them to review extension of time provisions to check that exclusion from a site will allow them to claim an extension of time, and to clarify suspension or termination clauses. Helen Garthwaite, head of the construction division at solicitor Lewis Silkin, said her firm had not seen any claims as yet, but warned that there could be a rush of legal action if the problems continue. She said: “I can see claims coming through the availability of material and getting access to sites in residential projects in rural areas.”