After the roll-out of Tier 2 of the Farm Business Investment Scheme has been hit with repeated delays, Ulster Unionist Leader Robin Swann this week received an update on the latest position of the scheme.
It reveals that Letters of Offer are expected to be sent out later this month.
Mr Swann explained that it was August when he first received an update from DAERA on the roll-out of the first tranche of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS).
At that time it was revealed there had been letters of offer for Tier 1 issued to almost 1,600 farmers and Mr Swann was informed that approximately 150 eligible applications for Tier 2 had been received. This is the element of the scheme offering major capital support from £30,000 to £250,000.
Mr Swann explained: “I had been told by the Department that it expected to start issuing some letters of offer to successful applicants by the end of the summer. Regrettably that didn’t happen.
“In the weeks and months since several of these farmers, as well as agricultural contractors working on their behalf, have approached me asking whether I could shed more light on the current state of the FBIS.
“This week I received a further letter from Noel Lavery, the DAERA Permanent Secretary, in which he told me all eligible Tier 2 applications are still currently being assessed.
“It is clear one of the reasons the anticipated timescales have slipped is that the Department took the decision to give applicants more time to progress through the planning process to allow for further engagement with the planning authorities and NIEA as appropriate.
“I had concerns that the initial planning expectations of capital projects was unrealistic so I welcome this flexible approach being shown by the Department. The Department has told me it has also given applicants the opportunity to clarify other aspects of their proposals.
“After I asked for applicants caught up in the process to be given some much-needed clarity, I am glad the Department have agreed to write out to each Tier 2 applicant this week to advise them on the progress of the assessment process. Where appropriate, the Department will also be writing to a number of individual applicants on specific issues that need to be addressed to enable their application to proceed further.
“It is anticipated that letters of offer will start to issue to successful applicants later this month, however I suspect this may slip yet again.
“I also asked for an update on whether a second tranche of the FBIS-Capital scheme was planned, but was told it is not possible at this stage to be specific about the timing. Decisions on Tranche 2 will be subject to a review of the lessons learned from Tranche 1 and funding availability.”
Mr Swann has raised concerns about what will happen to the scheme moving forward.
He continued: “Given the commitments in the Going for Growth Strategy that farmers would have a £250m scheme to support them, its increasingly unlikely anything even remotely close to that figure will be made available.
“The ongoing absence of an Executive at Stormont will increasingly lead to previous commitments such as this being dropped.”
A DAERA spokesperson said: “Selection Panels to assess Farm Business Improvement Scheme – Capital Tier 2 applications are underway and will continue over the coming weeks. The Department expects to start issuing Letters of Offer to successful applicants to Tier 2 later this month.”