With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 2 and 3 together.
On 10 February, the First Minister and deputy First Minister announced that £33 million would be invested in 23 projects aimed at tackling poverty and deprivation through improved community-based services and facilities. These first 23 projects were identified as priorities by the steering group in each local area plan across the nine social investment fund (SIF) zones. Officials are working with lead partners to agree the letters of offer for these projects and further arrangements for their delivery. To this end, on 10 March, a conference for all lead partners was held, which provided a platform to move forward. Following agreement of letters of offer, lead partners will take forward the necessary procurement to deliver the outcomes described in the project proposals that have been approved.
We are keen to ensure that projects are fully established and under way as soon as possible. Officials are working to ensure that this is the case. A further 29 projects have been identified as being within the limits of affordability in line with the budget allocations for each zone. Work is ongoing to secure business case approval for these. Subject to this and final costings, we hope to announce further projects later this year.
Details of the 23 projects announced and the further 29 projects prioritised for funding within the budget are available on the OFMDFM website. We would also like to assure Members that the £80 million remains ring-fenced for the delivery of the social investment fund. It is our intention that this will be fully allocated to projects by the end of this year.
As I said in my previous answer, a conference was held in March. Letters of offer should be going out soon for the 23 projects that were announced. I am not sure whether the steering groups have received them, but they have certainly been in contact with our officials, who have taken them through the projects that will be getting those letters of offer. That is what the conference was for.
The Member will be aware that the projects that were looked at were put forward by the steering groups themselves, so they were the priority projects in that area. The groups were waiting to see the allocations that would go across the zones, and, when those allocations had been decided and the groups had been informed about them, they had to re-prioritise some of their projects. Some of the 23 projects that have been announced and the 29 that have been prioritised look at dereliction and new capital build. The projects that I am talking about, which go right across the North, are listed on the website.
The Member raises an important point about ensuring that local delivery partners are given that opportunity. When procurement and government contracts go out, we hear that small and medium-sized businesses, particularly those from the community sector and from people who deliver in the community, can find the process difficult. However, our preference is for locally designed interventions to be taken forward where there is the capacity and capability to deliver that.
We believe that procurement projects could impact on training, employment and investment in local communities and, in the longer term, on regeneration. As such, social and environmental requirements can be included in public contracts in so far as they comply with procurement rules. Lead partners will be contracted to procure service providers who can deliver the specific projects that have been successful at appraisal stage, and we certainly welcome any collaborative approach whereby community groups can come together as consortia to build and deliver those projects, particularly within and across all the social investment zones. As I said, community groups can sometimes find it very difficult to do that.
Will the Minister outline how confident she is about the way in which the steering groups are operating, particularly the western steering group, on which Strabane and District Caring Services and Derg Valley Care are represented? Is she happy that there is a fair allocation across the zones?
The Member will be aware that, when members of the initial steering groups were being selected, we were very mindful to consider geographical representation. Obviously, these groups are right across the North, and they have to be a manageable size, so it was not always possible to ensure a spread of representation across individual zones. I know that appointed steering group members and their supporting consultants work very closely with each of the zones and with different organisations and groups in those zones to identify projects in the planning process. I can assure the Member that, when areas in a zone demonstrate evidence of objective need, they have been included in the plan. If someone in a certain area is not sitting in that zone, that does not mean to say that they do not have input into those groups and into taking forward those plans.
The spend to date has been focused on the consultation and the work to get the steering groups up and ready to deliver. We also need the necessary approvals, structures and processes to be in place to ensure that the fund delivers to the benefit of the communities that need it.
I can understand that sometimes there is a view that not much money is being spent on the actual projects, but I assure the Member that, after the conference that was held on 10 March, we are in a better place than we were with connectivity and with keeping people up to date to get the money out there as quickly as possible so that those projects and programmes can take place.