Concerns have been expressed about the slow progress being made with the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS) Tier 2.
Ulster Unionist Party Leader and department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) spokesperson, Robin Swann MLA, has revealed that to date only 84 farmers have been issued Letter of Offers for their projects under Tranche 1 of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS) Tier 2.
It has also been confirmed to him that since March up to a further 14 eligible applicants have withdrawn from the process, with the North Antrim MLA claiming excessive delays are driving some farmers to simply abandon their applications and walk away from the process.
Mr Swann said: “It was five years ago, when in May 2013, the Agri-food Strategy Board announced plans for an ambitious £250m Farm Business Improvement Scheme.
“It took a further two years for the scheme to be developed so when applications for the two Tiers of the first tranche opened it was no surprise that interest was high.
“Whilst the first Tier – with grants up to £30,000 - operated relatively smoothly the handling of Tier 2 has been nothing but a total joke.”
“There were 189 applications to the Tier 2 scheme which offered support up to a maximum of £250,000. Of these 21 were deemed not to have met the eligibility criteria. In March – the last time I wrote to DAERA seeking answers on FBIS – I was told that a further 12 applicants had withdrawn their application from the process.
“Now after seeking a further update from the Department they have told me that the number of applicants that were either ineligible or have withdrawn now stands at 47. In other words - since March up to a further 14 applicants may have decided to withdraw themselves from the process.
“This is an abhorrent situation, but with the scale of the delays in processing and approving funding I’m not totally surprised that more and more people are deciding to just walk away from the scheme.
“In recent weeks, after again being approached by several Tier 2 applicants, I wrote to the DAERA Permanent Secretary asking him a series of questions, as well as for an overall update on the roll-out of the FBIS. Now having received his response – in which he revealed only 84 eligible applicants have been issued Letter of Offers for their projects - I remain totally dismayed and fed up that the scheme is still working so slowly.
“For so many to still be waiting for penny of grant support, 17 months the scheme closed for applications in February 2017, is ridiculous.
“For each and every one of the 58 applications which are still progressing through the various stages of the assessment process, their businesses are on hold as they wait for this funding to be offered. These farmers, as well as the contractors who had been anticipating work, are at their wits end at what they all widely consider to have been a totally bureaucratic and blundering scheme.
“I was pleased however to be told that by last month all 2,997 applicants to the second tranche of Tier 1 had been informed if they were successful or unsuccessful in their application for funding. 1760 have since received Letter of Offers for their projects and 1670 have accepted.”
Responding, a DAERA spokesperson said: “The Department is making good progress to complete the roll out of funding for FBIS Capital Tier 2 tranche 1, with regular panels scheduled to assess remaining applications. The Department continues to engage with those applicants who are progressing through the assessment process.”