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I am delighted to have the opportunity to update you on the rural champion concept and improving the rural-proofing process. I have finalised the programme in just the past two weeks and intend to present them to Executive colleagues as soon as I can.
In summary, the key proposals include a phased process for the invigoration of rural proofing; support for activities that assist the better co-ordination or facilitation of rural stakeholders; development of a framework for dialogue between all government Departments and rural stakeholders; and creation of a rural evidence base and rural research programme that can support policy and programme development.
Those proposals aim to deliver a collaborative, integrated approach to the development of policy across government, ensuring the full involvement of stakeholders and the robust application of rural proofing. The outcomes that we seek include equitable access to services by rural communities, an enhanced rural-proofing process and access to a supportive rural evidence base.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. My question was about rural proofing, and the Minister referred to that. However, the Minister referred earlier to all the Departments. Given the difficulties of rural planning, is the Minister content, in her deliberations with the Minister of the Environment, that those who want to live in rural areas will be able to do so?
I am a member of the interdepartmental subgroup on planning policy. In that capacity, I have made a strong case not just for farmers but for rural dwellers to be able to live in their own communities. I have also formed an interdepartmental committee on rural policy, which I chair, which will incorporate senior policymakers from each Department, including the Department of the Environment. That is another mechanism for getting that message across loud and clear.
The rural White Paper will help to firm that up. In the past, we have seen almost a voluntary option for rural proofing. That has not worked. I am trying to ensure that rural communities can be sure that consideration of rural matters has moved on from a tick-box exercise. Therefore, if legislative proposals are needed, I will be happy to take them through.
Rural transport, particularly for children, is one of the issues that I raised at the meeting of the ministerial subgroup on children and young people. Everyone wants our roads to be safe, especially given the tragedy that happened in Fermanagh in the latter part of 2008.
Children who have to walk considerable distances on narrow roads that have a lot of traffic but no footpaths or street lighting must be safe. A rural transport policy would help to bring that about. These things do not come cheap, but it is worth spending money on them.