Over the past six years more than £500million has been invested in our rural communities through the 2007-2013 Rural Development Programme (RDP), creating 1,200 new rural jobs, establishing over 400 rural micro businesses, and improving the health and wellbeing of rural dwellers.
While this has been a tremendous success, we can do more. This is why I am very excited about the rollout of the new 2014-2020 RDP.
With 37% of the north’s population living in rural areas, it’s essential that their future sustainability is supported by meaningful government investment schemes. I’m confident therefore that the new Rural Development Programme will make a meaningful difference to the lives of farmers and the broader rural community.
I have negotiated a stronger deal with up to £623million now available to support rural communities boosting their economies and creating jobs.
My continued focus on rural investment and development has ensured a stronger and more resilient rural economy, particularly given the increased provision of basic services that are taken for granted in urban areas, however there is still work to do around rural broadband provision.
The RDP has been a key source of support for our farming and rural sectors and for the sustainable management of our natural environment. As Minister, I have ensured that support and funding reach those communities and businesses most in need, in order to allow them to create sustainable rural communities. The Programme empowers our rural dwellers to make local decisions affecting their local communities and I continue to support them in doing so.
For the new RDP, I have secured up to £623million - the largest budget we’ve had in the north for rural development. This includes up to £250million from the Executive for the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS). The Programme received European approval in August 2015. My aim is to deliver measures that meet the diverse needs of all our agricultural, environmental and rural sectors. Within the RDP there are schemes for improving the competitiveness of farming and agri-food businesses, protecting our environment and supporting and indeed creating rural jobs across the north.
To achieve those goals, I have allocated £287million to support the competitiveness of our agri-food industry, £256million to support schemes that protect our rural environment and £80million to develop our rural economies to enable them to thrive and prosper. One example of these new schemes is the Environmental Farming Scheme or EFS. The EFS is due to open later this year and will build on the success of previous agri-environment schemes which contributed over £180m to the rural economy during the last RDP. I’ve included support for our organic sector in this allocation.
To support our farmers in the current challenging climate, I moved quickly to open the first phase of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (worth up to £250million over the current Programme), with the creation of Business Development Groups. I’m delighted that just over 3,300 people applied to the Business Development Groups, with all applicants being offered a place within the groups. These groups will support farmers in learning about and enhancing their knowledge of business management, new technologies and innovative ways of working, which will assist them to think more clearly about their farm, their income and their future. I plan to open Farm Families Key Skills soon to further support farmers and I hope that the capital support aspect of the FBIS will open for applications in the next few months.
Within LEADER, under Priority 6 of the Programme, which focuses on Social Inclusion, Poverty Reduction and Rural Economic Development, I have allocated £70million for delivery by the new Local Action Groups (LAGs). The LAGs will work closely with relevant local councils to identify the priorities and needs of each community area, and ensure that funding is directed to the most effective and beneficial projects.
The new Local Action Groups are currently developing their Implementation Plans and will sign their contracts for delivering LEADER funding with my Department this month. Currently, around the rural north, LAGs are holding funding workshops and I would encourage any individual or existing rural business who may have an idea that will help create jobs, to go along to one of these events. The funding is available if the project is right.
Under the £10m Rural Tourism Scheme, my Department is currently seeking applications from Councils for strategic rural tourism projects that will increase the number of out of state visitors to the rural north.
Forests are an integral part of rural life, and there is a clear consensus about the need to increase our woodland area to counter the impact of climate change, to provide a habitat for wildlife and places for people to relax and unwind from stress and take part in physical exercise. To help preserve our woodland I announced the opening of the Forestry Grant Schemes under the RDP, allocating £17.4million to support woodland expansion and sustainable management of existing woodland.
A new measure which I have included in the 2014-2020 RDP is the Areas of Natural Constraint Scheme (ANC). This Scheme has replaced the previous Less Favoured Areas Compensatory Allowances Scheme. The ANC Scheme provides for a payment on eligible hectares of forage land in the Severely Disadvantaged Area to compensate for all or part of the additional costs and income forgone related purely to the constraints for agricultural production in the area. I’m pleased to confirm that payments under the ANC scheme will begin issuing in March 2016.
Over the lifespan of the 2014-2020 RDP, hundreds of projects will benefit, creating jobs and establishing thriving rural communities. It will also make provision for cross-border projects which I’m confident will lead to further integration and cooperation on an all-island basis.