It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate Scott Mann on securing this important debate. Some 37% of the Northern Ireland population live in rural areas, so they contribute to a large section of our overall economy. Unfortunately, they are somewhat missed out when it comes to the delivery of public services and public transport, which is also a problem when people go to develop a business in a rural setting. People might need transport for it, but there is no connectivity.
One of our biggest bugbears in Northern Ireland is rural broadband and the difficulties with it for businesses going forward. We have bucked the trend to some degree with businesses such as Randox in my constituency. It is a large employer based in a rural area, but it has also come across the difficulties of planning policy and what I call zoning. Zoning problems do not allow businesses to expand. They are good and developing businesses, but because someone has a wee red box drawn around an area, nothing more can be done. That can reduce the opportunities for a business to expand.
Now a Northern Ireland Executive is in place, we hope for access to the apprenticeship fund. Businesses in Northern Ireland contribute to it, but need to be able to access it to bring forward rural apprenticeships. In my constituency, the Greenmount agricultural college is a leading college for agriculture not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the UK, and we want to support it to bring diversification for farms and those involved in our agrifood industry, which is a major player in rural productivity.