Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Michelle McIlveen today put a profitable agri-food industry, a healthy environment and a thriving rural economy at the heart of her vision for the future.
During a briefing for the AERA Committee, the Minister said: “Since taking up post, I have reviewed my priorities in order to achieve my vision of a thriving and sustainable economy, environment and rural community. I have met with a broad range of agricultural, environmental and rural stakeholders as well as a number of other Ministers. I also visited many rural shows which gave me an excellent opportunity to speak to farmers, businesses and rural dwellers across Northern Ireland.”
Miss McIlveen told MLAs that in order to achieve her vision she will prioritise three broad, strategic and interdependent objectives:
- to deliver profitable agri-food, fisheries and forestry sector;
- to ensure a clean, healthy environment that benefits people, nature and the economy;
- to promote a thriving rural economy that contributes to prosperity and wellbeing.
She said that in delivering profitability across all sectors, her focus will be on improving the economic and environmental performance of businesses.
She went on to say: “The agri-food sector plays a pivotal role in the local economy, with an annual turnover of almost £5billion and over 20,000 employees. Despite the recent difficult trading environment, there is still significant potential for further growth. Therefore I aim to bring a sharper focus to Government’s role. Soon I will announce the opening of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme capital element which, I believe, will help to sustainably grow the sector. Growth must be sustainable. There is no point producing more if the market is not available.
“I am also acutely aware of the very challenging market conditions that farmers have faced. Whilst the vast majority of contributing factors are outside our control, we will continue to do all that we can to assist. In October, we will issue a 70% advance to Basic and Greening Payments to eligible farm businesses where all checks have been completed.
“I also recognise the importance of research. Over the next two years I intend to commission over £7million of new research from AFBI and our local universities. This will be done in collaboration with other institutes across the world and will allow us to access important research with a value of over £30million.”
Addressing the issue of a clean and healthy environment, the Minister told MLAs: “My Department will develop plans to regulate, educate and incentivise organisations, businesses and individuals to protect and improve the natural environment. This includes the Environmental Farming Scheme, a programme to streamline and transform environmental regulations and look for opportunities to work in partnership to meet both environmental and economic needs.
“We are also exploring the most effective and efficient way of delivering environmental advice to our customers in order to comply with legislative requirements; to improve the environment; and to enable businesses to be profitable and sustainable.”
The Minister then touched on her plans for promoting a thriving rural economy which contributes to prosperity and wellbeing.
She said: “Almost 40% of our population lives in a rural area and I will ensure that the needs of those living in rural areas are articulated around the Executive table. My focus will be to ensure we support local businesses to grow. I would like to see job creation as the cornerstone of our programmes.”
Addressing the issue of Brexit, the Minister told the committee: “Since the referendum, we have witnessed a positive impact on our agri-food industry. We have seen a significant depreciation on the value of sterling compared to both the euro and dollar and this is beneficial to exporting companies. As a result, there has been an improvement on the price of sheep, cattle and milk for our local farmers. Northern Ireland goods are more competitive in export markets and the costs of food products coming into the UK are more expensive compared to locally produced products.
“More visitors and shoppers are coming to Northern Ireland and, in particular, to our rural towns and villages. Devaluation of sterling is likely to have a positive impact on the value of basic farm payments to farmers.”
She went on to outline her policy priorities as the UK moves towards exiting the European Union.
“My priority is to continue to support the farming and fisheries sectors. We will continue to roll out the various programmes within the Rural Development Programme and have agreed a process to consider future implications on a case by case basis after the Autumn Budget Statement. Secondly, I am acutely aware of the importance of the agri-food sector to our economy. I want an agricultural policy framework that underpins its sustainable growth and competitiveness.
“We also need to protect and enhance the natural environment. Taking control of our own policies and regulations provides the opportunity to make a positive difference and I will be seeking to deliver improvements in environmental regulation.
“Finally, we must ensure our continued ability to trade effectively and profitably. It is vital that we get the best deal possible for Northern Ireland as the UK negotiates the terms of exit. I want to see open trading arrangements continue for existing markets, and a much more progressive approach to developing new markets across the world.”
Miss McIlveen also highlighted the work her department has undertaken on Brexit, including the establishment of an advisory committee to assist in identifying challenges and opportunities, and in developing closer working relationships with Ministers across the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Notes to editors:
- Details of advisory committee on Brexit can be found on the DAERA website.
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