NI officials warn Westminster allocation could stall future rural development schemes

The loss of rural development programme funding from Northern Ireland’s agriculture budget could impact DAERA’s ability to launch new rural development programmes in the future, senior officials have warned.

Stormont’s Agriculture Committee heard on Thursday (January 28), that the Treasury had budgeted £330 million a year for farm support in Northern Ireland.

The figure is based on previous amounts allocated for Pillar 1, Pillar 2 and CMO (common organisation of the markets).

However, as highlighted by members, the sum is not inflation-linked, meaning in real terms, its cash value will fall due to price rises.

The budgetary commitment also does not account for money set aside for rural development, worth around £34 million to Northern Ireland.

Similar stances have been taken across the rest of the UK, with agriculture ministers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each writing to the Treasury to dispute the allocation.

Agriculture Committee chairman Declan McAleer slammed the move as “an attack on rural communities”.

“The department and the communities have made good and prudent use of the money for the rural development programme and for that £34 million not to be effectively allowed to be carried over I think is shocking,” he said.

‘No flexibility’

Rosemary Agnew, director of the department’s Brexit Food and Farming Group, warned changes to the way the money could be spent would also prove problematic for officials.

“These are annual budgets with no carry-over into the future financial year so it does in many ways change how we need to operate these schemes,” she said.

These are budgets for an annual period and must be spent in year. We have no flexibility to carry forward.

“…It’s a very, very different scenario in terms of what we had been used to for managing budgets.”

“It’s mean… and probably an indication of how we will be treated by the British Government in terms of replacing funding,” chairman Declan McAleer said.

Cuts in the future?

Officials said they were not expecting to need to make any cuts within the department, as a result, this year.

“But this is something that could change for future years, and it is something we will have to keep under review,” the department’s finance director David Reid explained.

“If we did find ourselves in a position where we were having to consider cuts, that’s something that would have to be subject to consultation.

It doesn’t affect what we are planning on spending on current schemes, but it what it does do is it impacts on our ability to develop future schemes and allocate future funding to programmes that we typically would have expected to be funded under our multi-annual financial framework.

“So on that basis, it’s more a case of the money not being there, rather than the money being cut and coming from other budget lines.”