Ulster Unionist Agriculture spokesperson Robin Swann has expressed his frustration after it was revealed that only 12 applications to the larger capital element of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS) have been approved so far.
In a letter to the Ulster Unionist leader Noel Lavery, DAERA permanent secretary, confirmed that to date four selection panels have taken place and considered a number of projects resulting in the approval of 12 projects and Letters of Offer, with others deferred pending further clarification from the applicants.
He added: “This process is ongoing and selection panels will continue to take place on a regular basis over the coming weeks, but until the assessment and selection process is complete it is not possible to be definitive about the timescale for issuing all Letters of Offer.”
Mr Lavery said assessments are a comprehensive process, in proportion to the significant amounts of grant involved, to ensure that proposals are financially and operationally viable and will not cause environmental damage.
The Department wrote to each Tier 2 applicant in week commencing 16 October 2017 to advise them on the progress of the assessment process. In addition and where appropriate, the Department is also writing to and visiting a number of applicants seeking clarification on specific issues that still need to be addressed to enable their application to proceed further.
In response, Mr Swann said that given the Tier 2 element of the scheme will be providing up to £250,000 of support to a wide range of farm businesses across Northern Ireland, everyone understood that it would take slightly longer to administer than the smaller Tier 1. However no one expected it to take just this long.
He continued: “I had previously been told by the Department that it expected to start issuing Letters of Offer to successful applicants by the end of the summer, yet that just didn’t happen.
“In fact, after again writing to the Permanent Secretary of DAERA last month asking for a further update, I have been told that to date only four selection panels have taken place, resulting in the approval of just 12 projects and Letters of Offer. That’s only a fraction of the 150 DAERA expect to be approved.
“Whilst I understand schemes such as this cannot be rushed, these delays are just far too excessive. Farmers, and contractors who have been anticipating work, have been waiting for a year now. Many are at their wits end at what they see to be a totally bureaucratic and blundering process.
“I understand that the Department is still continuing to write to and visit a number of applicants seeking clarification on specific issues that still need to be addressed to enable their application to proceed further. Having spoken to many of the farmers concerned I firmly believe these are issues which could have been resolved some time ago had proper resources and determination been shown earlier.
“After I previously asked for applicants caught up in the process to be given some much-needed clarity, I was glad that the Department previously agreed to write out to each Tier 2 applicants. However that was eight weeks ago and considerable time has passed once again. DAERA must realise the delays are having a major impact on the long-term planning of the farms caught up in the delays.”