I am pleased to be able to report to the House that work is developing on the rural White Paper. It is now at an advanced stage, and I hope to publish a draft rural White Paper action plan for consultation on 21 March. I expect the consultation document to contain a wide range of actions aimed at improving the well-being of rural communities, such as addressing difficulties in accessing services, public transport, broadband quality and speed, and the development of effective community development structures.
The rural White Paper has been developed to provide a strategic rural policy framework for the next 10 years and will help to guide the work of the Executive in that significant and challenging area. Our rural areas face particular challenges as regards growth, jobs, infrastructure provision and access to services. The provision of good communication infrastructure and connectivity is vital to the sustainability of our rural areas and important in providing the isolated and vulnerable in our community with much-needed access.
The rural White Paper shows that our rural areas and people are important; that they have rights that must be respected; that they provide enormous value and untapped potential; and that government will do what it can to help recognise those rights, support that potential and address the real challenges that exist in our rural communities. It will provide an opportunity to look at what we do to support our rural areas and to think innovatively about how we target our limited resources for the betterment of our rural communities. It is an initiative that is close to my heart, not only as a rural elected representative but as a rural dweller who understands the challenges that living in rural areas can and does bring.
Absolutely. The public consultation will last for 12 weeks, during which my officials plan to hold a number of consultation events in rural areas throughout the North. My officials will work with rural representatives to ensure that there is full engagement with rural communities and a good geographical spread of events. Everyone with an interest in rural issues is welcome to attend. I ask them to come along and give us their feedback and their opinions and make sure that the document is as good as it possibly can be.
The Minister will be aware that rural proofing, which she has highlighted and brought forward, is something that needs to be addressed. Have her officials raised the issue of Libraries NI with their counterparts in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to ensure that rural proofing of Libraries NI is taken into consideration during the consultation?
I wrote to Minister McCausland for clarification on that issue and asked whether the decision to close a number of libraries, including some in both our constituencies, had been rural-proofed. A lot of people in rural communities do not have broadband at home and rely on the library for Internet access, for example, as well as for borrowing books and using the valuable resources that a library can provide. I am hopeful that the consultation, along with the additional money that has been made available for libraries, will save a number of libraries that have been earmarked for closure.
I am sure that the Minister will want to join me in paying tribute to P J Bradley, who is attending his last agriculture Question Time as an MLA, and who has served the SDLP for the past decade in that portfolio.
Can the Minister assure the farming community that the rural White Paper is also about understanding and maximising the potential role that farming will continue to play in rural communities as an economic, social and environmental driver?
Absolutely. I believe that the agrifood sector has weathered the worst of the storm, but, as I said in my original answer, I believe that there is still untapped potential for rural communities and for farmers. I would like to take the opportunity to thank P J Bradley for his helpful and constructive critique of my performance over the past four years. It is the last agriculture Question Time for us all, so I thank the Committee and the House for their support over that period. I wish P J well in whatever he decides to do in the future.