Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O’Neill, discussed the costs and benefits of relocating DARD HQ to Ballykelly during today’s Question Time. The estimated cost will be £30.8m in capital and £14.3m in resource. The costs are currently being refined as part of the full business case process, which is due to be completed by November 2015. Outlining the benefits of the move, the Minister said “I am confident that the wider rural area around the north-west will benefit significantly from the project in a number of ways. As well as the construction jobs, local businesses and suppliers in the area will benefit from a much larger customer base” adding that “the relocation will open up employment and promotion opportunities for people living in the local area and enhance the potential for staff living in the north-west to further their careers in the Civil Service without having to move to, or commute to, the greater Belfast area.” Mrs O’Neill also revealed that the building and site it occupies will also be open for community purposes. After suggestions that costs are beginning to spiral, the Minister assured “I am absolutely confident that it represents value for money. The Member's information about the costs spiralling is wrong. The costs have been outlined in the outline business case and, as I said, we are coming to the conclusion of the full business case.”
The Minister then went on to discuss the current situation with dairy farmers after the recent £5.1m secured as part of the EU farm aid package. Mrs O’Neill outlined the case she made for Northern Ireland’s farmers saying, “I welcome the fact that the Commission and DEFRA have accepted the strong case that I made for differentiated aid for the North, to reflect the unique and extreme circumstances faced by our dairy industry here. As a result, we will receive almost 20% of the member state’s allocation, which includes an additional top-up for the North of Ireland.” The full funding will be allocated to dairy farmers only “as the price falls we have seen in that sector are deeper and more prolonged than in any other farming sector”. The Minister is keenly aware of the difficulties currently in the dairy sector and the urgency in providing assistance saying “I am anxious that payments are made as quickly as possible, and, given that our farmers are in greatest need of support, I have told George Eustice that I want our farmers to receive their payments first. I have pressed him for the aid to be paid as early as possible by the Rural Payments Agency, and I expect that payments will be made in early December.”
The Minister also answered questions on Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster, the relocation of the Forest Service and bovine thefts in Newry and Armagh. During topical questions Mrs O’Neill continued to answer questions on agrifood cross-border initiatives, the supply chain forum, the rural development fund and single farm payments.