Commodity watch - Rural development update

Friday, 8 November, 2019

By UFU senior policy officer, Aileen Lawson

The Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme (NIRDP) 2014-2020, is worth up to £623 million made up of approximately £186.5 million of EU money matched with £186.5m from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), with a further £250 million promised to the industry by the previous Northern Ireland Executive.  Funding was allocated to three themes; competitiveness, environment and wider rural.

The additional funding of up to £250 million that was agreed by the NI Executive, was allocated to the Farm Business Improvement Scheme which sits under the competitiveness theme. This is an overarching scheme made up of several different measures including the Farm Business Improvement Scheme – Capital (Tiers 1 and 2), Business Development Groups, Farm Family Key Skills, Farm Innovation Visits, Technology Demonstration Farms and European Innovation Partnerships.  All farmers in NI will have had an opportunity to apply to these schemes and details can be found on the DAERA website.  All of the above have proved popular with farmers with the benefits from the schemes being rolled out on farms. However, there remains a significant amount of the £250 million still to be committed.

Under the environment theme, three tranches of the Environmental Farming Scheme have opened to farmers.  In total there are around 3000 EFS agreements in place and a further 2000 farmers applied to Tranche 3 of the wider scheme in September 2019.  A final tranche of both the wider and higher EFS is planned for 2020.  Farmers have also availed of forestry schemes with over 850ha of trees supported to date.

While most farmers will be aware of the measures funded under the competitiveness and environmental headings, the wider rural measures may be less familiar. The wider rural measures are largely delivered through Local Action Groups (LAGS) based in rural Council areas. There are 10 LAGS in Northern Ireland which are all controlled by a board made up of social partners (including farmers) and local Councillors.  This funding is allocated to various schemes including rural businesses, village renewal, basic services, broadband and tourism.  Most of the LAGs have now committed their budgets and it is positive to see that funding from the NIRDP has created hundreds of jobs across NI in rural areas, as well as supporting various other rural community projects and tourism initiatives.

As we move towards the end of the NIRDP, most of the schemes are up and running. However, it is disappointing that some such as the agri-food processing scheme, which is worth around £25 million, have not progressed due to the absence of a Minister to make the decision to allow this scheme to open.  There have also been delays to the FBIS – Capital scheme.  The UFU are lobbying for the FBIS Capital grant scheme to open again to support new technologies and equipment on farm to improve efficiencies, environmental performance, animal health and welfare, and health and safety.  This is particularly important to assist farmers in meeting new standards and requirements coming down the line.

Over 50% of the EU budget has been spent to date and DAERA report that they are on track to fully commit the EU monies within the necessary timescales. However, will the national funding that was promised to the industry all be realised? It is concerning that some of this money could be lost to the sector due to a lack of an Assembly and Ministers in post to make decisions. This is unacceptable.  It is vital that DAERA do all they can to maximise spend across all the themes and ensure that the commitments made in the NIRDP are met.