The Ulster Farmers’ Union says farmers are beyond frustration with the lack of progress on Northern Ireland’s Rural Development Programme (RDP).
It says events are bordering on the farcical, and that DAERA officials should be embarrassed and ashamed by the lack of progress.
The department has moved swiftly to defend its position, saying the UFU’s claim are ‘inaccurate’.
In a statement it added that it rejects ‘the union’s assertion that progress has been lacking’.
UFU deputy president Ivor Ferguson said: “Since 2014, when the present RDP began, DAERA has managed to spend just a fifth of the overall budget.
“We are now facing the prospect that funding promised will be lost to Northern Ireland farmers. This is inevitable unless DAERA officials focus on what should be the priority – ensuring that in the final RDP before Brexit an impact is delivered for rural families and for rural towns.”
Mr Ferguson went on to brand DAERA’s performance as ‘pathetic’.
He continued: “There are no signs whatsoever of key measures in the programme coming into force anytime soon, there are business cases for some of the schemes still not even submitted or approved at this stage. It will be at least another year before any payments from the Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS) reach farmers. Quotations submitted to DAERA in good faith for Tier 2 of the FBIS are now a year out of date and prices have risen considerably and this must be corrected by DAERA,” said the UFU deputy president.
The UFU believes the programme design was good but describes its execution by DAERA as ‘abysmal’.
“From EFS to the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS), the entire RDP has been tainted by negativity and failure to deliver. We are inundated with calls every week from farmers asking for updates. We can give no answer, other than to point to fundamental failings by DAERA. These are even more frustrating when there is a political vacuum and no mechanism to apply pressure to officials. Given that the focus of the NIRDP is to improve competitiveness and the environment, DAERA has failed to deliver either - more than three years into the programme,” said Mr Ferguson.
The UFU says progress here is ‘lamentable’ compared to the position south of the border. There, by the end of this year, the government will have spent around 70 per cent of its €4 billion RDP budget. Their agri-environment scheme has been funded and opened three times to new applicants and their capital grant scheme has opened every year since 2014.
“Our closest neighbour is blazing ahead, taking full advantage of EU rural development funding. We welcomed the reopening of FBIS Capital Tier 1 and the Business Development Groups but these are just a small part of a wider programme where DAERA is failing to deliver. If funding is not to be lost, its new year resolution, regardless of the political vacuum, must be to focus on delivery across the entire RDP,” he said.
In response to the union’s position, a spokesman for DAERA said: “The UFU’s claim on 2014-20 RDP spend to date is simply not accurate and DAERA would like to make it clear it rejects the union’s assertion that progress has been lacking.
“To date, 34% (78.7m euros) of 2014-20 RDP funds has been allocated to projects supporting the agri-food industry and rural communities across Northern Ireland - well above the 18% average across the 118 EU Rural Development Programmes of which the top programme has drawn down 38%. According to the Commission, Northern Ireland is in the top five programmes across the EU for declared spend.
“The Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS) – opened two years ago – is delivering a package of measures designed to improve the competitiveness of our farming industry. Through the FBIS Business Development Groups and Farm Family Key Skills, £4.5m has been allocated to support the farming industry, more than half (£2.5m) of this going direct to farmers. Through the FBIS capital scheme over 1,500 farmers to date have shared £7.2m in grants, with a further £1m committed in Letters of Offer to Tier 2 applicants. A further tranche of FBIS - expected to see a further £7.5m in grants distributed to farmers - was announced last week.
“Just over £4.4m has been paid to date under Priority 6 of the Rural Development Programme, creating over 500 jobs across our rural areas, while a further £12m has been committed to schemes promoting rural businesses, tourism, renewal and basic services.
“Through the RDP Monitoring Committee, DAERA has made it clear to the UFU that it has been completely focussed on delivering the 2014-20 RDP.”