SDLP Councillor Thomas O’Hanlon has criticised the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for the way they are treating applicants to the Rural Development Programme which is administered by SOAR – a joint committee of Armagh, Craigavon and Newry Councils.
Councillor O’Hanlon, a member of SOAR’s Joint Committee explained: “The Rural Development Programme administered by DARD is probably one of the most frustrating programmes I have ever been involved in and I am not an applicant. Those who are applicants are telling me that they wish they had never heard of the programme, community groups and rural businesses are being put under severe financial pressure with one business telling me that this programme has near put him out of business.
“I have asked that a cross party group of councillors seek a meeting with Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill to discuss the issues which we are raising time and time again and yet the Department and its officials just seem to ignore the problems being faced by rural communities and rural businesses instead of helping them. The department keep charging their rules and their interpretation of the rules and yet the applicants are the ones to get punished, you just couldn’t make it up.
‘The Rural Development Programme was supposed to help develop our rural economy and to help provide services to the rural community which they need and yet this programme is tied up in bureaucracy. We have the stupid situation where the department are holding back large sums of money from applicants because they were making progress on their project faster than they had anticipated, which they were encouraged by the department to do and yet the department are holding back tens of thousands of pounds and putting rural jobs at risk.’
“Ihave asked that the Minister intervene, and give some real direction to departmental officials. Officials and the senior management in the department right up to the Minister must know the implications of bureaucratic decisions on the rural economy and on rural community groups before they bankrupt good businesses and force community groups to walk away from vital rural funding.”
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