Minister urged to revisit major spend projects

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Ulster Unionist Agriculture Spokesperson, Harold McKee MLA, has called on the DAERA Minister to revisit a number of major Departmental decisions in order to ensure farmers are not unfairly left paying the price.

Speaking in an Assembly debate on the remainder of this year’s budget, the South Down MLA said: “It is disappointing that the previous two Agriculture Ministers used their important role to pursue their own flawed political agenda.

“An example is the proposed relocation of the old DARD headquarters to Ballykelly, despite widespread concerns.

“Costs for the project are growing significantly, with the recent estimates now in excess of £41 million, with over £10 million in this year’s Budget alone. In addition, value for money for the project has never been demonstrated, and officials from several Departments have expressed deep concern. Even the former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson refused to sign off on the project, not least, I suspect, because only an outline business case was ever produced. In fact, the only option considered was to relocate to Ballykelly,” he added.

“If the costs of the project cannot be contained, it will be farmers and rural communities who will be left paying the price for years to come. I hope that the new DAERA Minister will consider revisiting the issue to ensure that value for money exists and that other possible locations, such as the Driver and Vehicle Agency offices in Coleraine, are at least considered.

“Another issue is the growing concern over new IT systems for the Northern Ireland animal and public health information system (APHIS).

“Although the allocation for this year was £2·7 million, the reality is that the estimated cost will climb sharply in the years after. I will be keeping a close eye on that over the coming years as there is a very real danger costs could spiral and farmers could be forced to make up the short-fall.

“Finally, many farmers will have been infuriated to learn that, whilst DARD continued to put obstacles in their way, it had allowed its own administration costs to spiral. The total cost of administration was £45 million last year compared with £40million less than five years ago.

“Whilst there is a broad consensus that the agriculture and fishing industry here is still faced with too much red tape and was forced to jump through too many hoops with previous Ministers, I do not believe that there has never been a genuine willingness to tackle it. I hope the new Minister will not be found wanting in the industry’s efforts to reduce the administrative burden on our farmers.”