O’Neill welcomes additional boost for DARD budget

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Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has said that plans to move hundreds of jobs to rural areas would benefit from extra money from the Executive’s agreed budget.

However, she warned that challenges still lay ahead as a result of Tory cuts to the block grant.

The minister made her comments after the Executive finally agreed a budget on Monday after months of wrangling.

She said: “As part of the Final Budget process I sought and secured additional funding to support my priorities. This money has enhanced the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS) allocation by £1m to include additional support for farmers in completing the business planning process, as well as £1m to implement the HQ relocation projects.

“I believe bringing well paid public sector jobs into rural communities will act as an important stimulus for economic development in areas long deprived of such opportunities. The budget consultation process has reinforced my view, with many respondents expressing support for the HQ relocation programme.

“Fisheries and Forest Service are very much on target to relocate later this year and Rivers Agency is set to move in June 2016. The HQ building in Ballykelly will be completed towards the end of 2017,” the Minister explained.

The Executive’s agreed Final Budget will see DARD deliver almost £30m savings in 2015-16 which the minister described as a major challenge which will result in changes to the service provision across all areas of the department.

“I have had to prioritise funding to include the successful introduction of payments under CAP reform and launching the important measures within the Rural Development Programme, including ANC, Leader and FBIS. These EU funded schemes are a vital source of funding in rural areas and will be critical as we seek to grow the agri-food sector across the North.

“Ambitious targets have also been set out in the Going for Growth strategy and I will play my part in ensuring everything possible is done to deliver on commitments given by government.”

The minister added: “I have also secured a further £1m to improve the integration of the departments IT systems. This will be an important part of the DARD change programme which will see the department become a more modern, leaner and efficient organisation with services accessible by customers 24/7. A number of reviews will also be conducted into the approach to inspection, advisory functions and corporate services. This work will help inform the future operating model and ensure that all areas within DARD provide a high standard of service at a cost that is affordable.

“However, I remain concerned about the impact that the budget cuts could have on rural dwellers as departments start to implement plans. I have raised the need for departments to Rural Proof decisions that may adversely impact those living in rural communities with the Finance Minister and I will continue to highlight the issue around the Executive table.”