Agriculture Minister, Michelle O’Neill, discussed the recently launched Rural Micro Grants Scheme during today’s Question Time. The scheme will allow rural, community-led, voluntary organisations the opportunity to apply for small grants (£200-£1500) to purchase equipment or for minor capital works to contribute to the alleviation of poverty and/or social inclusion. The deadline for applications closed last Friday (22 May 2015). 450 applications have been received and the screening process will begin immediately with the intention of notifying successful applicants by July. An initial £200,000 has been set aside for the scheme which should benefit around 150 rural community organisations. The Minister enthused that, “The new programme represents an excellent opportunity for community groups to build on their existing roles, strengthening community engagement and improving the lives of those living in rural areas.”
Mrs O’Neill also revealed the latest developments on the move of DARD headquarters to Ballykelly, County Derry/Londonderry. The planning application for the new HQ was submitted to Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council in April 2015. This includes plans for the new building and the new road required to access the building. The full business case should be completed by November 2015 with the intention of awarding a construction contract the next month, with building to begin in May 2016. Temporary accommodation will be located in the North West to facilitate the transition from the current HQ in the Stormont Estate, Belfast, while continuing to provide the same high level of service. The move is part of the Minister’s commitment to a better distribution of public-sector jobs adding, “These jobs moving to the north-west is a major win for construction in the north-west, the ongoing servicing of the building and a fairer distribution of public-sector jobs”.
The Minister also addressed questions on bovine viral diarrhoea, the voluntary exit scheme, forest certification and the rural development programme. A topical question period followed the period for listed questions, in which Mrs O’Neill also answered queries on rural broadband provision, basic payment top-ups for young farmers, sheep labelling, rural crime and slurry safety measures.