Frustration at funding progress

UUP Leader Robin Swann
UUP Leader Robin Swann

Increasing numbers of farmers are expressing concern at what they regard as the slow progress being made in the processing of Tranche 2 applications, relating to Tier 1 of the Farm Building Improvement Scheme (FBIS).

Calls to Farming Life this week have been further encouraged by the fast approaching end to the 2017/2018 tax year.

The purchase of grant-aided equipment on or before March 31 would allow farmers to have their investment fully included in their tax affairs for the current financial period. Machinery manufacturers across Northern Ireland are also confirming calls from farmers on this specific subject.

Responding to these developments, a Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) spokesperson said: “DAERA and its delivery agent are committed to progressing Tier 1 FBIS-C applications as quickly as possible.

“Tier 1 Letters of Offer have started to issue to eligible applications commencing with those receiving the highest score, and this will continue over the coming weeks until the available budget is fully allocated.”

“All FBIS-C applicants are advised that they must not commit any expenditure on their proposed project prior to receiving a formal Letter of Offer or the application will be deemed ineligible and no grant will be paid.”

Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist Party Leader Robin Swann MLA has expressed his anger after it was revealed to him that still only 39 of the 156 – just one in 4 - eligible applications to Tier 2 of the capital element of the Farm Business Investment Scheme have been approved to date.

He said: “It was three months ago when I last sought an update on the FBIS- C Tier 2 and at the time it was confirmed to me then that only 12 applications had been approved for grant funding. Now this week, after seeking a further update from the new DAERA Permanent Denis McMahon, I find it frankly outrageous to be told that it has taken a further 13 weeks to approve just 27 more.

“There is simply no excuse for this anymore. I appreciate that the grant support is substantial and that the proper precautions need to be taken but it’s been almost 5 years since the Agri-food Strategy Board announced plans for the Farm Business Improvement Scheme.

“The specific details on the capital scheme were then drawn up and later approved by the Executive so I think it is outrageous that over a year since applications to Tier 2 closed three quarters of eligible applicants have still not had their payments approved.

“The Tier 2 of FBIS had great potential with many farmers planning for investments in their buildings and equipment to improve productivity and efficiency across their businesses on the back of it.

“Yet for so many to still be waiting for penny of grant support, so long after the scheme was first announced and a year after applications for it closed, is pathetic.

“I have spoken to a fair number of the remaining 117 farmers that are caught in this limbo and their frustration is really starting to boil over. Many are in a total impasse, unable to go ahead with major and necessary investments. I have even heard a few of them say that if they knew 12 months ago what they knew now, they wouldn’t have bothered applying to the FBIS and that they would have gone ahead and made the changes themselves without the grant support.

“The roll-out has been riddled with delays. I’ve lost count the amount of times DAERA have told me they will soon be approving full payments. In his latest letter the DAERA Permanent Secretary told me that the Selection Panels for Tier 2 continue to meet on a ‘regular basis to assess and approve applications.”

Mr Swann added: “Such commitments are meaningless as we’ve heard them all before and they’ve been routinely broken. If DAERA want to try to claw back some credibility on this scheme I would urge them to actually prioritise processing and approving payments to the 117 remaining applications. Only then will we be able to move on from the farce and hopefully look towards a much more competently administered second tranche of Tier 2 in the not too distant future.”