17 May 2002

Access to funding needs to be easier

By Philip ClarkeEurope editor

A ONE-STOP-SHOP for rural development is urgently needed in Northern Ireland, to ease access to funds and to encourage more farmers to use this increasingly importantpart of the common agricultural policy.

"Currently we suffer from a plethora of departments and agencies, all dealing with different aspects of rural development," says Ulster Farmers Union commodities director, Wesley Aston. "The system is diverse and complex and that has put people off. What we need is a single delivery mechanism."

In particular, he points to the Farming Connect system operating in Wales.

"Farming Connect offers a single port of call for farmers with rural development projects. There are the equivalent of 22 full-time facilitators and over 100 consultants who provide farmers with free on-farm advice and help them draw up suitable business plans and apply for grant aid."

Funds are drawn from eight different agencies, but are streamlined through the one body. They are then distributed to farmers to help pay for things like training, capital investments, technical advice, new technology and pollution control measures.

Since its launch last September over 4100 Welsh farmers have registered for the service, compared to just a handful of farmers who have come forward with rural development initiatives in Northern Ireland.

"We have to address this problem, especially as rural development is likely to assume greater importance in the CAP," says Mr Aston. "Modulation already provides additional funding in Northern Ireland and that sum is expected to increase following this summers mid-term review of Agenda 2000."

As such, the UFU is making a number of proposals to the Department of Agriculture to improve the system, (see panel).

"We want to deliver a broad and shallow scheme, accessible to all farmers to deliver genuine benefits," says Mr Aston. "New entrants and existing young farmers in particular need a helping hand, given the lack of profit available in farming at the moment. Thats the only way we can secure the future of the farming industry." &#42

Wesley Aston is looking for a simpler rural development plan.

&#8226 To streamline the departments and agencies dealing with rural development.

&#8226 To amalgamate the various funding streams – including the Rural Development Plan (£76m) and the Rural Development Programme, which includes Building Sustainable Prosperity (£30m), LEADER+ (£20m), Peace II (£15m), INTERREG III (£6m) and the Agri-Food Development Service Rural Development Plan (£21m).

&#8226 To extend the measures that modulated money can be used for (currently limited to the so-called "accompanying measures", including hill area payments, forestry and agri-environment).

&#8226 To prioritise agri-environment and new entrants/young farmer schemes.

&#8226 To create a one-stop-shop for all farming families wishing to develop their businesses.

&#8226 To establish a unique, single, transparent delivery mechanism with a tailored, customer-friendly approach.

&#8226 To deliver the products of many current and future support schemes through this single mechanism.