East Derry MLA Claire Sugden has urged all Executive ministers to work together to ensure rural communities are protected by the proper implementation of the Rural Needs Act.

Sugden said a “siloed” approach where each department worked in isolation from each other was potentially damaging.

She said the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs needed to take the lead in ensuring rural needs were protected.

“The Rural Needs Act exists to protect public services and infrastructure in the countryside,” Sugden said.

“Each department must consider the impact on rural communities when making decisions that affect them.

“This includes things such as school closures, medical centres, transport networks, broadband and a host of others – changes to which can have a big impact on people in rural areas.

“In the case of schools, rural schools may be under-subscribed when compared to those in towns or cities.

“However, in addition to the provision of education, they may also provide a social hub and a community space for locals,” she continued.

“It’s essential that when decisions are being made – in this case by the Department of Education – a more long-sighted and holistic view is taken and acted upon appropriately.

“I have questioned the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs about the cross-departmental work that is done when decisions are being made in rural communities.

“While the individual ministers are responsible for their particular remit, there must be joined-up work done so that impacts can be properly assessed. A school closure does not just affect education – it can affect a host of issues and people.

“Rural services will almost inevitably be less subscribed than urban ones, but simply assessing issues on cold numbers ignores many of the facets involved.

“As a largely rural population, the Rural Needs Act must be strictly implemented, and changes made if necessary.

“Rural communities deserve the same services and opportunities as urban ones – we have the framework to make that happen and greater focus should be placed on it.”