Rural Halls Refurbishment Scheme

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 29th November 2021.

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Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 3:00 pm, 29th November 2021

3. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the rural halls refurbishment scheme. (AQO 2811/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

My Department's rural halls refurbishment scheme closed for applications on 11 June 2021, with a total 211 applications received. The first stage in the assessment process was to rank the applications according to their Northern Ireland super output area access-to-services domain, after which officials worked through the eligibility process for each application. When that concluded, 114 applicant organisations were deemed eligible for the scheme, with 97 deemed ineligible.

All ineligible applicants have been informed that their application has been unsuccessful, with the reasons for that decision provided in their correspondence. Those applications that were deemed eligible but not shortlisted due to funding constraints have also been advised of the outcome of their application.

The scheme guidance stated that the number of projects anticipated to be funded would be 30. However, I secured funding to enable 50 eligible applications to be included in the pilot scheme. That will result in training and refurbishment funding of just under £2 million for a total of 50 voluntary and community organisations. An initial 30 organisations have completed their training, and, as of today, 16 letters of offer to the value of £562,000 have been issued, with a further 14 to the value of £474,000 expected to be issued next week. A further 20 organisations will commence their mandatory Managing Your Space training in early December and should receive their letters of offer in March 2022, with an estimated letter of offer value of £665,000. At this juncture, it is anticipated that the first 30 organisations will have the majority of their refurbishment works completed by 31 March 2022, and the additional 20 will be completed by September 2022.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer and for the interest that he has taken in this issue in relation to the establishment of the pilot scheme. Clearly, from what he has said, there is a demand in rural areas for such a scheme. Will he outline his plans to progress the scheme in the weeks ahead?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for his question. It is quite shocking to see how poor some of those facilities are. This funding, which could provide disabled access, a kitchen that can meet normal health and safety standards, new fire safety controls or, perhaps, heating in some of the halls that are still using coal fires, has been demonstrated to be absolutely necessary. A lot of small halls are in rural communities that have been left behind.

We have proceeded with the scheme for 50 halls at this stage. We are looking to see how we can further assist the 114 applications in total that demonstrated that they could and should be funded. We did not have the financial capacity to do that, but we are looking at how that could be done. Given the demand for the programme, we are looking at how it could be mainstreamed in future.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

A key element of the scheme was the requirement for six members of the community to participate in a mandatory Managing Your Space capacity-building training programme. What evidence do you have that that programme was successful in achieving capacity building?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We directed the funding towards halls that had never previously received funding. One of the things that we wanted to ensure was that, when the hall operators got the funding, they would be in a better position to avail themselves of public funding in future. We believe that it is important to provide them with the necessary skills and support, and that is why the training was part of the programme. Our intention was that the funding would not just be a one-off and that, when it comes to other developments that could be carried out for the benefit of that rural community, the operators would be better placed to do that. That is why we carried out the training. At this point, it is probably too early to ascertain the success of the programme, but, nonetheless, we believe that it was very important that it was carried out.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I am sure that the Minister will agree that, whether it is down to COVID or Brexit, many of our rural communities are facing huge challenges. Those difficulties need to be addressed within the rural policy framework in order to make any great difference. While the rural halls refurbishment scheme is a good initiative, is the Minister considering any rural business and community investment programmes as part of that framework?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

DAERA has been leading on a number of projects that provide real and significant benefits to rural communities. We have engaged a whole series of schemes through the tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) framework. For example, we have pilots on a website development programme, a rural tourism collaborative experiences programme, a rural microbusinesses growth stream, a rural social economy investment scheme, a micro food business investment scheme and a rural community pollinator scheme. There is then a whole series of other established programmes.

Those mentioned are all pilot schemes, but they are innovative. They set out to target rural needs, to drive up the number of visitors to rural communities and to ensure that small rural businesses that are never going to be tapping into Invest NI funding can get those modest grants — £20,000 to £50,000 in the main — that can make a real and substantial difference to the viability of their business.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

With the emphasis now on rural investment, will the Minister provide an update on another rural development initiative from his Department, namely the rural tourism collaborative experiences programme?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The aim of that programme is to bring together small clusters of rural businesses and other partners to work closely on developing a range of products and experiences that can be promoted individually or as a combined experience. In those clusters, people are operating in the same field. For example, people producing artisan foods are linked up with the providers of the raw materials and further linked up with markets for their products. Those are the types of things that we wish to encourage.