Last week the European Commission gave final approval to the last of the EU’s 118 Rural Development Programmes (RDPs) which determine how €99.6bn of Pillar 2 money will be spent throughout Europe.
Over the last couple of years the UFU have undertaken comprehensive internal consultation on the shape of the next Rural Development Programme and how it should benefit local farmers and rural communities in the coming years. This has given the union a widely agreed and sound policy when discussing the various proposals at the stakeholder meetings and directly with DARD.
The total £623 million funding allocated for the NIRDP means that DARD can deliver a fairly comprehensive package and within this the NI Executive’s commitment to both match fund the NIRDP’s EU funding element and its promise of up to £250 million to help deliver on the NI Agri-Food Strategy Board’s Going For Growth Report demonstrates that they are serious about the future of our agri-food industry. From the outset, the union has argued that the next NIRDP must deliver on key priorities such as innovation and competitiveness if the agri-food industry is to realise its full potential and many of the measures the UFU has lobbied for over the last couple of years have been included in the programme with an appropriate budget attached to them. It is positive to see that a large proportion of the NIRDP budget has been allocated to the ‘Competitiveness in Agriculture’ strand (£226 million).
This week the Minister for Agriculture has announced that 3,313 applications have been submitted to join the Business Development Groups programme. This programme has £25 million allocated for the development and running of the Business Development Groups. The Business Development Groups Scheme is the first scheme to be made available under the Farm Business Improvement Scheme which falls under the competitiveness strand of the Rural Development Programme. The level of interest demonstrates an industry eager to seize the opportunities which the NIRDP will bring. Around 15-20 farmers will be in each sector specific group facilitated by a CAFRE advisor. The UFU are hopeful that the group meetings will commence in early 2016, with the onus now on DARD to ensure speedy processing of the received applications. Farmers who preferred not to join the BDGs will have the opportunity to get training to help farmers and their families to adapt to the changing needs of the industry and to assess the development needs of their business under the Farm Family Key Skills option under the competitiveness strand.
One of the most talked about elements of the next Programme, which falls under the competitiveness strand, is the Farm Business Investment Scheme. Up to £200 million has been allocated to this element, a capital grant scheme that will grant aid buildings, equipment etc. on farms. The scheme will support investments which improve on-farm resource and production, resilience to adverse weather events and mitigate climate change, animal and plant health along with improvements in health and safety on-farm. The UFU believe that it is essential that there are no delays in getting the various schemes open to ensure that farmers can start to avail of the funding as soon as possible. The next step will be to ensure smooth delivery of the FBIS and that bureaucracy is kept to a minimum so as to maximise its effectiveness.
The UFU will continue to lobby to ensure that the 2014-2020 NIRDP roles out in an effective and practical way with the maximum budget realised. The union will continue to meet with DARD around the detail of the various schemes to make sure that they will be meaningful and attractive to local farmers.