O’Neill outlines the priorities in DARD’s budget

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Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has outlined the future spending priorities for her Department in the wake of the Executive Budget for 2015/16, published earlier this week.

In an official statement, issued yesterday, she made it quite clear that the period ahead would be difficult for DARD.

The Minister added: “The Executive’s draft budget for 2015/16 has been a focus of debate over the last number of months, particularly given the scale of Tory cuts. This is a difficult budget, with pressures resulting directly from cuts imposed by the British Government and I expect further reductions in the future as our block grant from Westminster will continue to be reduced.

“The reductions will have implications for all Departments, including DARD. My share of the cuts equates to £29.9m. This will be very difficult for my department to deliver within one year, particularly as over half of my costs relate to staff.

“I do, however, recognise the need to balance my budget, and I will consult with stakeholders on my proposals between now and the end of December. I am very keen to hear the views of stakeholders, particularly those that live in the rural community, who may be impacted by the savings proposals.”

Minister O’Neill went on to point out that despite the obvious challenges which the reduction in budget presents, she will not be deterred from delivering her policy priorities and her Department’s commitments in the Programme for Government.

“This includes tackling rural poverty and social isolation, which remain a key priority for me. And I will ensure funding is provided for the Programme in 2015-16,” she further explained.

“I also intend to bolster rural economies through the Department’s programme of relocation which has already been announced and the necessary £4.2 million of funding has been allocated in my Budget proposals.

“I will also allocate £3m of funding to initiate some of the actions identified in the ‘Going for Growth’ strategy. A key feature of this investment will be the delivery of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme. This represents an initial step towards delivering longer term investment. Farm businesses will, however, need to have sound business plans in place before both they and the Executive commit significant amounts of capital into their business.

“In addition, I am also committed to delivering a range of other measures within the new rural development programme. This includes establishing the new Local Action Groups under the LEADER programme, and delivering payments to farmers through the new ANC scheme.

“In undertaking this very difficult task we have reviewed the Department’s income and expenditure in order to determine how we could deliver the required level of savings while seeking to minimise the impact on current frontline services and essential service delivery,” she stressed.

“The process of reviewing expenditure and service delivery requirements has been led by the senior management team in the Department.  The measures identified represent very difficult decisions.  In addition to seeking to optimise the use of resources, the measures would involve scaling back programmes, raising additional revenue and taking forward cost reductions measures.

“They would also require DARD to reduce the number of staff working across the Department.  As part of this process I have asked officials to develop a new Target Operating Model for the Department. This refreshed design will reflect the need for digital services as well as greater integration of the staff resources deployed by DARD.”

The Minister also confirmed that DARD staff are currently working with AFBI to focus future funding commitments on high priority areas.

“We want to ensure that we get best value for our investment. We will ensure that the decisions in relation to the Work Programme are in place in advance of the next financial year. This will give AFBI time to plan the work and allocate resources accordingly. I have also set revenue raising targets for AFBI including £1m of EU funding. I believe it is imperative for the sustainability of the organisation to identify alternative forms of funding, particularly in the area of research.

“Within the Rural Development Programme I am committed to launching Leader, the new Areas of Natural Constraint scheme and the Farm Business Improvement Scheme. Due to budget constraints, I am postponing the opening of new agri-environment schemes.”