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Sustainable Land Management Strategy

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP 2:45 pm, 7th November 2016

2. Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs how she plans to implement the sustainable land management strategy. (AQO 582/16-21)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

As the Member may know, Minister McIlveen received the sustainable agricultural land management strategy at the launch event at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) in Hillsborough on Friday 21 October. Minister McIlveen and her officials will now consider the report carefully, examining the potential implementation of the recommendations to deliver her Department's vision of a thriving and sustainable economy, environment and rural community.

It is clear that significant resources would be required if all the recommendations were to be implemented. In a time of scarce public finances, finding sufficient funding streams to match the ambition of the report will be challenging, but the Minister and her Department appreciate that supporting growth in the agri-food sector also means supporting the environment that sustains that growth.

Significant investment will also be required from the agri-food sector. However, if we can show clearly that such investment from the public and private sectors will have tangible and lasting rewards, making the case for funding will be much easier. However, it may be possible to carry out phased implementation of the report that will help inform consideration of wider-level implementation.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Minister for his response. Will he outline how the Department could fund the implementation of the land use strategy?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

At the launch back in October, I understand that the Minister gave a very clear commitment that she will carefully consider not only the report, and that is what she is doing at present, but how the recommendations can be implemented. That includes considering how it might be funded, of which there is a range of different ways. Bearing in mind that we are in times of some constraint with our budgets, and may be so for some time yet, she is mindful of that but is still looking at imaginative and creative ways in which she might be able to fund this important piece of work.

The Department could consider using existing funding mechanisms; for example, the rural development programme or the environmental farming scheme, where there seems to be an alignment. Both could be used. She could, as I said in my original answer, carry out a phased implementation to help inform consideration of wider and more full implementation. There are business development groups in place at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) that could help provide feedback on the roll-out of larger-scale projects.

Finally, as a report has been developed in response to a recommendation contained in the Agri-Food Strategy Board's Going for Growth report, there is a reasonable expectation that the agri-food industry will make a significant contribution to the implementation of the strategy, particularly when, as I mentioned already, evidence can be shown that it produces better outcomes and more productivity for the agri-industry. It is therefore something that I am sure that the industry will be keen to be involved in.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

Given the often overbearing nature of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and its unwarranted treatment of farmers, what assurances can the Minister give that the strategy will not result in further hounding of the farming community?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I am pretty sure that the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs would not want to implement anything that was over-bureaucratic and would put more of a burden of red tape and regulation onto the farming industry. As I understand it and as I indicated to Mr Irwin, the objective of the strategy has been about trying to sketch out a direction of travel and put in place an action plan that will lead to more productivity while understanding that that productivity will, in large part, depend on looking after the environment from which the agri-food produce comes.

As I have said before, I know that the strategy flows from a specific recommendation in 'Going for Growth'. That, of course, was a document that was produced with input from the farming community, with some former presidents of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, for example, sitting on the board. I am sure that they will have been mindful of the issue of bureaucracy when they came forward with the recommendation. I know that the land management strategy group, headed by John Gilliland, was careful to take and consider the views of the farming community. I think that that is reflected in the recommendations in the final report. I am sure that the Minister, in trying to take forward the report, which she is now considering, will be exceptionally mindful of that and will not want to put in place something that has a positive aim but might have some negativity in the way in which it might be implemented.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Minister, you are aware that, increasingly, there is a two-tier system in farming, with hill farming and lowland farming. Can you guarantee to the House that any strategy that is brought out will not affect the hill farmer and his unique way of farming?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

As I said in response to Mrs Dobson, I am sure that the Minister will not want to implement a strategy that has negative impacts on any sector of farming, never mind a negative impact on the environment in which they farm. I am sure that the points that the Member raises in respect of hill farming will be carefully considered by the Minister. As the Member will appreciate, she only received the report in the last couple of weeks. I think that the group is to present to the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee in the not too distant future, and I am sure that those are issues that you might want to take forward in discussion with the group when it comes before the Committee, bearing in mind the consideration that it will have given to the issues as it was developing the report. I am pretty sure that the Minister, if she was here, would say that she does not want to implement anything that will negatively impact on any aspect or area of our farming community.

Photo of Gerry Mullan Gerry Mullan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I appreciate that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural — whatever the title is — has a lot of reports to consider.

[Laughter.]

Can you give us any indication of when, after finishing all her consultations, she proposes to bring forward her proposals around the sustainable land management strategy to the House for discussion and debate?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I do not blame the Member; I struggle with the title myself.

The Member will appreciate that the Minister received the report on 21 October, which is not that long ago. I am sure that the Member and the House will indulge her and allow her to take some time to carefully consider all the recommendations. As I pointed out in response to Mr Irwin's original question, it is important that she bears in mind the cost implications of implementing it. It would probably be unwise to come forward with a report if she had no understanding or appreciation of where it might be funded from, so she will need to take that into consideration as well as all the wider impacts that Members have raised. If the Member gives the Minister some forbearance, having received the report only on 21 October, I am sure that she will not delay in coming forward with her consideration and, more than that, her conclusions and her way forward in implementing the strategy.