The UFU has told the agriculture and rural development (ARD) committee at Stormont that the proposed Rural Needs bill is a “welcome proposal” but has warned MLAs of the need to make sure it delivers for rural areas.
UFU president, Ian Marshall, described the aims of the Bill as positive and long overdue. “A lot of government policy decisions have severely and negatively impacted rural areas. In the pursuit of cost savings, rural areas often come out worst,” he said, citing as examples the closure of rural schools and the centralisation of services.
“A lot of damage has been done and we hope the new Bill will help redress this,” he said. Mr Marshall warned that while imposing a statutory duty on those developing or implementing public policies was a positive step, he said it could only deliver if “rural”was clearly defined.
“Consideration of rural needs must be factored in at the outset and not just as a screening exercise.”
The proposed bill places a duty on DARD to prepare an annual report to the assembly.
“While the UFU believe this degree of monitoring is meaningful it is still unclear where accountability will lie,” Mr Marshall said.
The UFU told MLAs it believes some areas of the Bill are too vague and offer insufficient clarity for public bodies.
“This could make the Bill’s application ineffective, which would do little to deliver the ultimate goal. We want a Bill that sees the needs of rural areas considered as part of the decision making process, rather than what now happens, when these needs are an afterthought, or tick box exercise,” he added.
Despite this concern about issues that need to be ironed out the UFU says that overall the Bill is a “positive development” for rural dwellers.
“We support it in principal but feel it should be strengthened before it is finalised. Done correctly, this Bill would help ensure more equitable treatment for rural areas, which is badly needed across Northern Ireland,” Mr Marshall said.