You would think that, on a day like this, we could move proceedings outside, like we used to do in school on a nice day. We could sit out and enjoy the sun, as well as get the business done.
The North/South Ministerial Council met in special EU programmes sectoral format in Armagh on 4 May 2012. Council last met in SEUPB sectoral format in November 2011. I represented the Northern Ireland Executive, accompanied by Junior Minister Martina Anderson. The Government of the Republic of Ireland was represented by Brendan Howlin TD, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who chaired the meeting.
The meeting began with a presentation from the rural enabler programme, a £2·7 million initiative aimed at the Rural Community Network and funded under the Peace III programme. The programme aims to build positive relationships between all communities in rural areas of Northern Ireland and in the border counties of the Republic. The presentation was a welcome opportunity for the Council to learn directly of the benefits of EU Peace funding and its delivery.
I commend the project leaders for their achievements to date and for the very interesting and engaging presentation they gave to the Council.
Mr Pat Colgan, the chief executive of the Special EU Programmes Body, updated the Council on progress since the November 2011 meeting. The Council noted and welcomed the ongoing work being undertaken to close the Peace II and INTERREG IIIa programmes. It is anticipated that the closure process for the two programmes will be complete before the end of the year.
The Council also noted SEUPB’s progress in implementing the current Peace III programme. As at the end of March 2012, Peace III had approved 158 projects worth £284 million; that is, 98% of the available budget. To date, the programme has spent £108 million and that exceeds its EU spending target for 2011. It will need to spend £11 million in 2012 in order to achieve this year’s EU target, and SEUPB is confident that that can be achieved.
With regard to the INTERREG IVa cross-border co-operation programme, the Council noted that, at the end of March 2012, 71 projects worth £170 million had been approved. As a result, just over three quarters of the programme’s budget has been allocated to projects. The programme has to date spent £60 million, enough to surpass its EU spending target for 2011. However, it will need to spend £32 million in 2012 if it is to meet this year’s target. Again, SEUPB is confident that that can be achieved.
The Council had been previously advised by SEUPB that INTERREG faced a potential risk in achieving one or more future EU spending targets, possibly in 2013 or 2014. The risk was due primarily to the fact that the programme budget was not yet fully allocated to projects. SEUPB advised that, if the programme budget was not fully allocated to appropriate projects by the start of 2013, EU spending targets could be missed, either in 2013 or 2014, or in both. When a programme misses its EU spending target, any shortfall between the actual and the target expenditure is deducted from the programme budget. SEUPB had advised the Council that up to £35 million might be at risk on account of missed spending targets, if the risk were not addressed.
I am pleased to report that, since then, there have been some positive and welcome developments with the INTERREG programme. In January this year, the SEUPB held a call for projects. That attracted 91 applications, seeking nearly £190 million, which is around five times the remaining INTERREG budget. The top-scoring applications have been shortlisted and are currently being assessed in detail. SEUPB aims to have all the top-scoring projects fully assessed and the funding issued by the end of the year. There are also a number of applications from previous calls that are still under assessment. Again, SEUPB aims to have those assessed in full before the end of the year. If all of those assessments are completed on schedule and the funding allocated, the programme should be back on track. It will have allocated its full budget and any potential risk will have been greatly reduced. My officials are, therefore, working closely with SEUPB to ensure that that end-of-year target can be achieved.
The Council was also updated on the progress that has been made by the five local authority-based groups under the INTERREG IVa programme. The groups now have 34 projects approved, worth £37 million. In addition, they have a further £25 million worth of projects under assessment, including the North West Regional Science Park. Based on projects approved and projects under assessment, it appears likely they will secure at least £55 million. That is their notional share of the programme funding. It is good to see that the programme’s local dimension has made a strong showing, because there were concerns that that would not happen. The INTERREG programme was developed to have both a regional and a local focus and it is vital that there are good local projects to balance the more regionally focused initiatives that have been funded.
Where future funding is concerned, the Council noted that we are still at an early stage in that process. The EU budget will not be agreed until the end of this year or perhaps early 2013. Until that happens, there will be no decision on how much individual member states and regions will receive. However, the Council was satisfied that there is likely to be a further INTERREG cross-border programme, and the prospects for a fourth round of Peace funding remain good. In view of that, the Council noted that, in line with its statutory responsibilities, the SEUPB will shortly initiate work on the development of future Peace IV and INTERREG V programmes.
The Council noted that the work will be consultative and evidence based. It will take account of the performance of previous programmes and will be led by a steering group, chaired by the SEUPB. The group will be made up of programme stakeholders from across the eligible regions. The Council noted the key priorities for the SEUPB, as set out in its business plan and budget, and noted that the SEUPB’s annual report and accounts had been prepared in draft for certification.
Finally, the Council noted the November 2011 plenary meeting’s recommendation concerning the establishment of a board for the SEUPB. The Council agreed that the cost of a board would be difficult to justify. Given the existence of the current EU programme monitoring arrangements, a board would, effectively, deal with only the SEUPB’s administrative budget, which is just 3% of the total SEUPB budget. However, it was agreed that the two sponsor Departments would examine the governance arrangements that are in place for the SEUPB and report back to the Council at the next meeting in sectoral format, which is scheduled for October 2012. The decision will be referred for endorsement at the next NSMC plenary meeting, which will be held in June 2012.