Rural Policy Framework for Northern Ireland

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 31st January 2022.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 12:30 pm, 31st January 2022

I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in the light of social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber must also do that, but they may do so by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly.

I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. This is not an opportunity for debate, and long introductions will not be allowed. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the question period thereafter.

Having laid the ground rules, I now call the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make a statement to the Assembly about Northern Ireland’s first ever rural policy framework, following the recent public consultation, which closed on 6 September 2021.

For decades, investment in the development of rural areas in Northern Ireland was driven by successive EU programmes. The UK's exit from the EU, however, including its withdrawal from the EU-driven rural development programme (RDP), provides a unique opportunity to develop programmes specifically targeted at addressing the unique challenges faced by people living and working in rural communities throughout Northern Ireland.

The rural policy framework provides a basis for us to make the most of that opportunity. It supports my Department's vision of putting sustainability at the heart of a living, working, active landscape that is valued by everyone. It demonstrates our ongoing commitment to ensuring that rural communities flourish and prosper through our continued support of and investment in initiatives that will make a tangible difference to those living and working in rural areas.

We must not overlook the fact that over one third of people living in Northern Ireland live in a rural area. To move those communities forward, I want to deliver initiatives that address barriers to sustainable growth and that promote equal access to services. That means dealing with issues such as connectivity, economic development, environmental challenges, poverty, loneliness and isolation in rural areas.

I want to use the rural policy framework, alongside other key policy tools such as the Rural Needs Act and the tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) programme, to help address the barriers that prevent rural communities from growing sustainably.

My priority is to introduce policies to address those issues, improve urban/rural linkages and provide greater access to jobs, health and well-being, broadband, education and training, social and other opportunities to help sustain and improve the economic and social outputs and sustainability of rural areas.

The rural policy framework is the framework against which those policies will be introduced. It is a living document that will support a fair and inclusive rural society where the people who live and work in rural areas will benefit from improved access to services, improved quality of life and greater opportunities from sustainable growth. The rural policy framework focuses on five thematic pillars supported by 19 priorities for intervention. They will help to create a sustainable rural community where people want to live, work and be active in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way. The thematic pillars were agreed and developed as part of a comprehensive engagement process with rural stakeholders over a two-year period. The five thematic pillars will support initiatives in innovation and entrepreneurship, sustainable tourism, health and well-being, employment and connectivity. The priority areas are supported by work that we are already engaged in. Through that work, we have been able to test our assumptions through a wide range of pilot programmes. Evaluation of the pilot programmes and the lessons learned from their delivery have been used to inform the development of this comprehensive policy framework.

When the consultation closed in the autumn, it came as no surprise that there was overwhelming support for the framework from the vast majority of those who responded. I thank all of those who took the time and effort to respond to the consultation. I was greatly encouraged by the level of engagement from a wide range of stakeholders and the quality of responses received. We received 105 written responses, seven of which were submitted by rural support networks, representing the views of 915 community and voluntary groups. Respondents raised additional key themes that are helping to shape the framework further; in particular, there was recognition of the changing challenges to rural communities presented by climate change. It is clear that stakeholders want environmental and sustainability considerations to play an important role in delivering future rural programmes. As we in Northern Ireland seek to address those challenges through our green growth strategy, we must lay the foundations for a more sustainable society in which our rural communities will play a significant role.

Social housing provision in rural areas was another area of concern highlighted by respondents. Whilst DAERA has no specific policy remit or responsibility for social housing, as rural champion, I will ensure that my Department engages closely with stakeholders and the Department for Communities to ensure that positive action is taken to help address that issue in rural areas. I intend to reinforce that by working with public authorities to ensure that they adhere to their responsibilities as set out in the Rural Needs Act.

Respondents also highlighted the importance and value of partnership working. It is my intention that DAERA will continue to work in partnership with other Departments, councils, community groups and businesses in rural areas to deliver for our rural communities. DAERA already has a strong history of partnership working, and that was evident and effective when it responded to the challenges of the COVID pandemic.

Responses to the consultation have also highlighted the challenges that many rural stakeholders face because of short-term financial settlements, reinforcing the need for longer-term financial clarity. I am taking that into account when I decide where to allocate funding for the next three years as part of the current Budget exercise, and that should help to deliver the aims and objectives of the rural policy framework.

The need to learn lessons from the LEADER programme, in particular the importance of the bottom-up approach in engaging with local communities, was also highlighted by respondents. Throughout the LEADER programme, the immense contribution of local action groups (LAGs) has been invaluable. I want to ensure that the best elements of that approach are retained to support future schemes in an efficient, effective and flexible way. I have decided therefore to establish a rural stakeholder oversight committee to ensure the continued involvement of key stakeholders and rural communities in helping to shape future rural investment. I also want to ensure that the way in which the oversight committee operates is kept under review so that it can remain flexible and responsive to the changing needs of our rural society. It is my intention that the oversight committee will be established in the coming months and will be supported by a range of stakeholder sub-committees that will cover a range of themes and issues, including equality, the environment and the thematic pillars of the rural policy framework.

The rural policy framework has been updated to reflect the issues that were highlighted in the consultation, so I intend to formally launch the new rural policy framework for Northern Ireland next month. After that, my officials will start to develop the new rural business and community investment programme. That will involve designing new schemes and examining delivery structures and methods for the next seven years.

The development of the new programme will be informed by the detailed evaluation of a range of pilot schemes developed by my Department, many of which are well under way. Those pilot schemes were developed to help to test the assumptions of the rural policy framework, and they provided £6·2 million of investment in rural communities in 2021-22. There are nine pilot schemes in total. To date, they include the website development programme, £0·25 million; the rural tourism collaborative experiences programme, £0·46 million; the rural microbusinesses growth scheme, £0·16 million; the rural social economy investment scheme, £0·4 million; the micro food business investment scheme, £0·2 million; the rural halls refurbishment scheme, £1·07 million; the rural pollinator garden scheme, £1·69 million; the rural digital inclusion scheme, £20,000; and the rural community rescue scheme, £1·9 million.

At this stage, it is too early to say how the programme will be delivered. As a result of the work that we have done through LEADER, TRPSI and our pilot schemes, we have experience of successfully delivering for rural communities in a variety of ways. I want to ensure that, for each scheme in the new programme, we use the most efficient and effective delivery mechanism possible. That means that a range of delivery options will be considered as the design of the new schemes progresses.

Whilst my Department will continue to deliver a wide range of initiatives to support rural communities in Northern Ireland, it is important to remember that the challenges facing rural communities are not for DAERA alone to address. Under the Rural Needs Act, public authorities have a duty to have due regard to rural needs that should deliver better outcomes for people living in rural areas to help make rural communities more sustainable. I recognise the importance of continuing to work in partnership with other public bodies, the private sector and rural stakeholders to ensure the best outcomes for our rural communities. We will therefore work closely with partners in government to champion the needs of rural communities across a range of issues, including housing and other public services. As I mentioned, I am considering where to allocate funding for the next three years as part of the budget process, and that will include allocations for the new programme. Alongside that, my Department will also continue to deliver TRPSI, while aiming to secure additional funding for rural communities through PEACE PLUS, green growth, city and growth deals and other funding opportunities that emerge in the future. No stone will be left unturned.

The purpose of the statement is to rightly recognise that our rural communities in Northern Ireland are innovative and resilient. I have no doubt that, with the right support and by collaborating with other public authorities, we will showcase the diverse and innovative ways in which the needs of rural communities can be addressed. I am confident that the rural policy framework will help to deliver the best possible outcomes for our rural communities and address many of the challenges that they face. We must look to a post-COVID-19 future and embrace the opportunities that green growth, globalisation and technological innovation present. Given the challenges presented by climate change, a focus on the environment and sustainability will be key in the delivery of future programmes. As we in Northern Ireland seek to address the challenges through our green growth strategy, we must lay the foundations for a more sustainable society, and our rural communities will play a significant role in that. If we get it right, the benefits to our rural communities will be substantial and will, no doubt, make Northern Ireland a place where people want to live, work and be active.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 12:45 pm, 31st January 2022

There are significantly more Members in the Chamber than I have on my list. If Members want to ask a question, they should rise in their places. That is great. Thank you. OK. Yes.

[Laughter.]

It is like that whack-a-mole game. Yes, that is fine.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. He will be aware that rural communities benefited greatly from the EU's rural development programme, which provided a seven-year ring-fenced budget and included projects that were driven from the bottom up by local communities through LEADER. Obviously, as a consequence of Brexit, we have been removed from the EU rural development programme, and we have seen no progress on the UK's Shared Prosperity Fund, which was supposed to be the pot that the British Government would provide to replace that lost funding. Will the Minister give an indication of what budget, he believes, will be available for funding the new rural policy?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

At this point, it is too early to give an indication about the budget, because the overall Budget has not yet been resolved. We will bid to the Northern Ireland block grant Budget, which has obviously increased as a consequence of Brexit. We will also bid for PEACE PLUS money; EU farm replacement funding, where appropriate; and green growth funding. When we get beyond the term of the current Parliament, we will take stock of what is available. In addition, the LEADER programme carried administrative costs of almost 20%. That meant that just under £12 million of the £73 million that was available was directed to administrative costs rather than being targeted at rural communities. We want to put some focus on how we can deliver the funding more efficiently and ensure that we can take that figure, which is close to 20%, hopefully, down to a much smaller figure — I want to see it in single figures — and, therefore, deliver more money to communities and spend less on administration.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, I am sure that you agree that agriculture is the backbone of our rural areas. Therefore, if the productivity and profitability of agriculture is reduced, it will have a knock-on effect on rural businesses and employment. There are real issues for the sector as a result of moving away from the targets set out in the Executive Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. What impact is that likely to have on our rural areas?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That question is slightly off-topic. I will use not my words but the words of KPMG, which has been recognised for its expertise in those issues. It estimates that, when it comes to family farms — the primary producers — we will lose 13,000 jobs. That is hugely significant for the rural community. In addition to those 13,000 jobs in the primary sector, there would be a knock-on effect on the processing sector, which is largely made up of people from rural areas. If you go to the food factories in Dungannon, Portadown and other places, you will see that the workforce is largely made up of people who live in predominantly rural communities. The impact on jobs in the rural community would run to many tens of thousands. Therefore, it is important that we seek to protect the rural community in many ways. We are doing the policy framework to assist them. It is important that, first, it is a financially viable community, and the decisions that we take in the House need to be taken with that in mind.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. I will revert to the issue raised by the Chairperson of the Committee around the Shared Prosperity Fund to replace the EU moneys that were clearly lost through Brexit. Has the Minister been in a position to get any indication whatever of the scale of the funding that may or may not come to the North?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

At this stage, I cannot give the Member a definitive answer. It is still being worked through. Hopefully, we will be in a position in March to deliver what the budget will be. It is important that we get a Budget for Northern Ireland first. The Department of Finance brought forward Budget proposals, and those need to be amended. I do not think that they go anywhere near far enough to deliver on commitments around climate change, for example. All of that is important for rural communities, because — let us think about it — many people who live in rural communities do not have access to the gas pipe network, which could be used in the future to deliver hydrogen and biomethane. Many of them have to travel to work, so having carbon-neutral vehicles and a means of ensuring easy access to those vehicles will be critical. In addition to that, connectivity and broadband availability are critical, so everything that we do must ensure that rural communities in Northern Ireland are not left behind and that the opportunities for people in those communities are as good as those for people in our capital.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. You spoke about the issues to be addressed, including education. Area planning is in progress in education at present. That recommends that only schools with 105-plus pupils are sustainable. That will have a knock-on effect and really knock the heart out of rural communities. What talks or collaboration have you had with the Minister of Education to address that issue, which would appear to be a conflict in your policies?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for the question. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, there is probably a higher proportion of smaller schools than in any other constituency. I have been engaging with the Education Minister to see how we can help to support schools in rural communities.

The policy of 105 pupils has been around for a long time. I know that the closure of small schools is very difficult for people. I also know, as a consequence of going to small schools, that pupils do not get a lot of the opportunities that they would get in a larger school. That is the conundrum that we are in. When I was raising my children, their school closed and was amalgamated with four others. I have to say that, ultimately, that was a positive thing for the education of the children in that there was much more on offer in preparation for secondary education.

Those are challenging things. The Minister of Education held this portfolio previously and has a heart for rural communities. I expect that she will have a good listening ear when it comes to the issues.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for the statement. At a recent meeting with Alliance colleagues and Translink, better connectivity for rural areas was discussed, addressing not only better connectivity to towns from rural areas but connectivity to public transport. Are conversations taking place between Departments and agencies that will address, for example, better access for cyclists to public transport, which might include the storage of cycles at public transport facilities?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That is where the establishment of the oversight committee and, indeed, its subcommittees is important. They will be responsible for inviting officials from other Departments as and when required to help to inform the committee's work. Other Departments will have to demonstrate the work that they are doing to address the issues for rural communities.

I am the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, but every Minister is responsible for rural communities. Being the Minister for Infrastructure, the Minister of Education or the Minister for whatever Department does not obviate the need to ensure that people in rural communities get a fair crack of the whip.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Minister, in your statement, you said that one of the important lessons from the consultation was the lessons learned from the LEADER programme, in particular the importance of a bottom-up approach in engaging local communities. Local action groups were allocated a budget to pursue the strategic objectives that were developed by the communities that they represented, so the LAGs identified local needs and strategies. Minister, how, and will, your Department guarantee that local needs are identified and local strategies developed to address those local needs?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have identified the need to learn lessons from engaging local communities through that bottom-up approach. I want to ensure that the best elements of that approach are retained to support rural businesses and the community investment programme in a way that is responsive to the needs of rural businesses and communities.

I believe that the rural stakeholder oversight committee and its subcommittees are central to ensuring that the best elements of that bottom-up approach are retained. The committee structure that I am putting in place will ensure that key stakeholders in rural communities will be central to helping to shape the way in which future investment is targeted. I do not believe that we are moving away from the bottom-up approach; I would argue that we are embracing the best elements of it in a way that meets the need of future programmes.

It is also important to bear in mind that the LAG structure was a requirement of the rural development programme, so, from the point of view of delivering future programmes, we do not want to be restricted to retaining the exact same structures, and we need to ensure that, going forward, our programme is flexible, efficient and responsive, which means making the best use of a range of delivery mechanisms. We also have to be mindful of the need to make best use of the resources that are available to us, which makes it very difficult to justify retaining structures and processes that eat up to one fifth of the available funding that should be going out to communities.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP 1:00 pm, 31st January 2022

I thank the Minister for his statement. There is no doubt that, through the initiatives and the framework, our rural communities will thrive. Proper support for rural businesses and having proper infrastructure in place will be the vehicle to help to reduce the brain drain from our rural communities. How does the Minister foresee this being taken forward in future programmes?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It is always a concern when we lose talent and ability from our rural communities. Our investment in Project Stratum, which came about purely as a consequence of the DUP deal with the Conservative Government back in 2017, has ensured that connectivity in our rural communities is increasing. As a result of that, more people who have talents and skills but would previously have been forced to go to the city for a job — or, indeed, out of the country — can do that job in that rural community and very often in their own home. That is hugely advantageous. The securing of over £200 million of investment for rural communities enables schoolchildren to, for example, more easily do their homework, which is critical. It also allows people to engage in all their research and work. It enables people who do service jobs and people from an accountancy background, an engineering background and so many other backgrounds to carry out their jobs in those rural communities. That is critical going forward, and it is programmes like that that we need to ensure help sustain rural communities.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement and the answers that he has given. Rural dwellers should have equality of opportunity, and inequality is often intersectional. With that in mind, how will women, young people and people with disabilities benefit from the rural business and community investment programme under the rural policy framework? Additionally, it could be argued that, under the previous RDP, border communities benefited the most, given the cross-border aspect of that. Will there be any cross-border route for this cooperation programme?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

One of the pilots that we ran was on rural halls, which, as you know, are very often the hub of the community. They support parent and toddler groups. They support older people who want to meet, and that helps to tackle loneliness. They support people by providing classes — aerobics, yoga and all sorts of things — which helps people's mental health. Therefore, investing in rural halls, particularly those that previously had not received financial support, has been a significant benefit to rural communities, and the roll-out of that programme will help to ensure that more people who have been deprived of opportunities that they might have in the city have opportunities in those rural communities to meet, mingle and engage in things that are readily available elsewhere.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. You touched on this, Minister, but I was heartened recently when a number of rural halls in my area received funding via the rural halls refurbishment scheme. While I welcome that capital support, I believe that it needs to go much further. Many volunteers who are involved in rural halls have felt despondent and that their work has been undervalued. The scheme has helped to encourage, build and utilise infrastructure, including that already in place, but a priority should be placed on rebuilding rural communities, especially in light of their isolation as a result of COVID-19. Does the Minister agree that the scheme should be expanded?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, I do. One of the important things about the scheme is that it provides a training element, and, in order for people to draw down the grant, they have to avail themselves of that training element. Too often, a lack of capacity has ensured that some communities have not had the same opportunities as others. We need to build that capacity. Therefore, the training element is critical.

Hopefully, we can help those communities, which have had a taste of getting some financial support from government for renovation work to their facilities in order to provide disabled access, safe electricity and heating and so forth, through that programme with micro grants for equipment and other support. The requirements will need to be fed through. It is about assisting people to have a series of programmes in rural halls that help people in the community. Those programmes could have something for them to enjoy or to help with their mental health, loneliness or isolation, as well as with many other areas. We want to tackle those issues head-on in order to help rural communities.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I declare an interest, Minister, as I belong to a community group that has benefited from the rural community pollinator scheme. We hope to have something for you to look at in a few months' time when the community garden opens.

Minister, on the health and well-being piece, as a volunteer in community organisations, I find that, whilst there is money to deliver programmes, which the health service assists with, there is very little help with staffing costs and the provision of some expertise for the programmes. As we come out of COVID, how do you envisage moving forward on the demand for volunteers, and will there be support for management and supervision?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

One of the areas that we support is farm families health checks. That has been a hugely successful programme, particularly when it comes to identifying high levels of cholesterol, atrial fibrillation, early heart problems and cancer problems. We all know that identifying disease early is the best way of ensuring that it does not spread and that we can do something about it.

Again, I am absolutely open to working with other organisations, including the Department of Health, Translink, the Department for Communities or whoever it happens to be, in order to ensure that we can deliver high-quality services in rural communities. I look forward to seeing the Member's rural pollinator scheme. I hope that there will be no sting when I get there.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Áine Murphy Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

Minister, Brexit and the withdrawal of EU funding are the context for the development of a new rural policy framework. The Minister of Finance has highlighted that the £11 million that has been set aside for projects here through the Community Renewal Fund pilot scheme, which is part of the Shared Prosperity Fund, is substantially less than the approximately €70 million per annum that we previously received from comparable EU structural funds. Minister, given your party's support for Brexit, what are your contingency plans to ensure that the social and economic needs of people living in rural areas are met if no more funding becomes available from Westminster?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Certainly, we are very happy to raise all those issues with the Department of Finance and to deal with them in a positive way in order to ensure that rural communities have a continuation of significant funding so that they can deliver across a range of areas. We need the Department of Finance to recognise rural needs. We need it to recognise environmental issues, in particular, and to put further funding into the like of green growth, so that we can have vibrant rural businesses that will drive the economy forward, which, in turn, will drive forward the local shops, local businesses and the local economy. We want to ensure that we can continue to provide the element of support that helps to put in place the structures that support people living in rural communities.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the rural community pollinator garden scheme. It is an excellent, forward-thinking policy that will increase biodiversity and, given the number of successful applications from schools, encourage and educate the next generation to understand and deliver biodiversity into the future. Does the Minister agree that the scheme should be included in the future programme?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The uptake of the rural pollinator scheme has been very exciting, as has the innovation displayed in the applications. We have sought to facilitate that. This year, the scheme will have a real focus on education, but, at a later point in the year, I hope to do a further piece of work with communities. The Department will work towards that, but, for now, we are focusing on schools and doing something with the Department of Education, because young people have an enthusiasm for things relating to the environment. What better thing to do than increase the pollinators that exist here. That will be good for the environment, biodiversity and our harvests, be they apples, cereals, or whatever else, because pollinators have a key role to play.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Minister for his statement. The policy framework links through to different pillars and to the Programme for Government, but its key driver is the Budget. Does the Minister agree that the Budget needs to be linked through to the Programme for Government in order for this policy, and other things, to be achieved?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I agree that budget is critically important. The course of work in which we are engaged is about ensuring that we have the appropriate budget to match the aspirations that exist in the policy framework. We will continue that course of work over the next number of weeks.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement and responses to questions. Brexit presents a significant threat to the future of agriculture and rural development. The North has lost access to EU funding, with potentially huge consequences for rural development and rural communities, as we have seen in mid Ulster. How will the Minister ensure that the rural policy framework integrates and complements the rural development programmes in the rest of Ireland?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I note the Member's statement, but, since Brexit, virtually all our prices in all commodities have risen. The farming community is in a considerably better position than it was pre Brexit. For example, in October, I was able to offer farmers 6·29% more for their single farm payment than they received when they were in the European Union. I increased it the previous year as well. I was able to deliver it in October — it is not happening anywhere in the European Union — because I was freed from the conditions that are applied by the European Union, which are not beneficial to releasing the funding involved. The biggest threat to farmers and the agri-food sector is the Climate Change Bill that is proposed by Ms Bailey, and which is being supported by the Member's party. I understand that some of them will be here tomorrow. If the Member is serious, talk to and listen to those people, and do the right thing when voting on the draft climate change legislation that will be coming over the next number of weeks.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I want to go back to the question of lost EU funding. The Minister seemed to be saying that it is not an issue, but, in November 2020, he signed a letter, along with his counterparts in Scotland and Wales. He has said that he has:

"pressed time and time again for clarity ... from the UK Government" that they will meet their commitment to rural areas. He also said:

"It is simply intolerable to even contemplate a future where the devolved administrations are at a disadvantage."

Given that we know that tens of millions of pounds of funding for rural areas has been lost because of Brexit, can we take it, Minister, that you have not received any such commitments on replacement funding from the UK Government? Do you have anything to say to rural communities as a result of that?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 1:15 pm, 31st January 2022

The Member will know that I will always bat and bat hard for rural communities, irrespective of where I do that. Be it in Belfast, over at Westminster or elsewhere, I will always fight for the rural communities that I represent and be their champion. When it comes to the development of the budget, we will therefore take all the opportunities that exist from the Shared Prosperity Fund, the Levelling Up Fund and green growth and from what the Department of Finance can offer us. I have to say that we are in a circumstance this year in which we will potentially be handing money back to Westminster. If we end up handing money back, the cry that we do not have enough will ring a little hollow, so I will press the Department of Finance to get the money to people who have demonstrated that they can spend it and spend it wisely, well and for real benefit to the wider public. A lot of that has been done in our rural communities, and I trust that the Department of Finance and the Finance Minister, in particular, will continue to provide that support for them.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

The historical failure of the Department to engage women and young people cannot be denied. Minister, as I listened to your statement, I noted that there was no mention of women or young people in it, which makes me wonder what is new about the framework. I listened to your reply to Ms Sheerin. Outside of meet-and-mingles in rural halls, Minister, what is the plan in the new framework to ensure that the historical failure to engage women and young people as programme beneficiaries does not continue?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I always wonder whether the Member is blinded to what is taking place. If she is talking about young people, she is talking about an investment of around £2 million in rural pollinator schemes that has been identified for schools. I see the Member shrugging. I am sorry, but those are significant —.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I never mentioned pollinator schemes.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

You mentioned young people, and I am of the belief that most of the people who attend school are young people, unless I have been living on another planet.

Seriously, however, we are investing significant amounts of money to support the needs of the rural community per se, of the young people who live in rural communities, of the women who live in rural communities and of the marginalised groups that live in rural communities. Who, do you think, will use the halls, for example, when the disabled access is put in, when the halls are made warmer, when women's groups have a local hall that is fit for purpose and available to them and when we have classes, be they arts and craft classes or physical activity classes, set up by people in the local community? The women and the young people in the rural communities will benefit from all those things, and I really wish that we would stop trying to label one group of people and set it apart by saying that it is not being represented, because, frankly, that is not true.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I would like to test the fine words in the statement against a real issue in my constituency. The world-famous Dark Hedges are suffering from degradation because of destruction from traffic and a lack of management. We have had years of parcel-passing and broken promises. We urgently need a competent body to manage the Dark Hedges. Will this policy help? North Antrim, like South Down, has many rural tourism assets, so how will the policy help in that specific instance?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have been to the Dark Hedges, and I have met the chief executive of the local council, who recognises the need that exists. I was with local MLA Mr Storey, who invited me there to see how we can help deal with that circumstance. It is a cross-departmental issue; as a roads issue, it is not one that the Department of Agriculture leads on, and the Member knows that. However, I recognise that the Dark Hedges are a hugely valuable asset to Northern Ireland — they bring a lot of tourism — and we have indicated clearly that we will work not just in support of but with others to drive things forward. That work continues as we speak.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

No other Member has indicated that they wish to ask a question. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.