Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 25th May 2021.

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Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 2:00 pm, 25th May 2021

2. Mr McAleer asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) programme. (AQO 2105/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have secured an initial allocation of £5·5 million — £2·5 million resource and £3 million capital — for the 2021-22 tackling rural poverty and social isolation programme, which will support a range of interventions that are consistent with the programme’s objectives and intended outcomes of the TRPSI framework. I recently approved the 2021-22 TRPSI programme action plan, which builds on the success of working collaboratively with other Departments, statutory agencies and the community and voluntary sector.

The plan reflects the important role that the TRPSI programme budget will play in sustaining existing initiatives and promoting the development of new approaches.

The resource funding will support the rural community development support service (RCDSS), the charity Rural Support, the assisted rural travel scheme (ARTS), the farm families health checks programme, the social farming support service, social prescribing and employability schemes. The TRPSI programme will also fund capital projects that enhance and develop rural recreational facilities such as forest parks and community trails. The rural micro capital grant scheme will support community and voluntary sector projects to address localised poverty and isolation issues, while the rural business development grant scheme will support the sustainability of rural businesses. Other collaborative projects focusing on the regeneration of villages, the use of rural schools as community facilities and increased access to buildings for persons with disabilities will continue this year.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 25th May 2021

I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that he agrees with me that, in the context of the overall budget, the TRPSI programme represents a modest amount but is an example of how a modest amount can go a long way. Does the Minister agree that a well-funded TRPSI programme will be essential to enable rural community organisations and rural communities at large to emerge from the COVID pandemic?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That is why I have secured the provision that we have. That is a demonstration of our commitment to the rural community, which goes beyond the agriculture sector, and of our ability to assist rural communities in a tangible way in conjunction with other key bodies. For example, the farm families health checks will be carried out in conjunction with trusts. Much of the work that we will do will be done in conjunction with local government. We can achieve a considerable amount by levering additional money through the TRPSI funding, which can significantly boost rural communities to an even greater extent.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

What measures does the Department use to assess rural poverty, social isolation and loneliness? How successful do the measures show his programme to have been?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

All the measures that we have identified have been significantly addressed as a result of the programme. We have been targeting communities in which isolation is a significant problem. A lot of that funding was used during the COVID period, when, for example, we entered into agreement with the Department for Infrastructure on the rural transport scheme to ensure that people who were isolated and vulnerable because of COVID and who had previously used that transport to travel into town continued to get food and medicines and had that transport bring produce to them.

There has been a series of schemes that involve the better utilisation of public buildings to ensure that they can be used for other purposes; for example, schools are used for purposes other than education. We have been able to support education providers with iPads and digital technology, particularly on the back of COVID, to ensure that children in rural communities have the opportunity to continue their education even when they could not travel to school as a consequence of COVID.