Rural cuts will rip hearts from communities: MLA

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone

Swingeing cuts to rural development funding could “rip the heart out of communities” across Northern Ireland, an MLA has warned.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) faces cuts of up to £20m in its annual budget by 2020, according to a budget outlook report published last month.

The £20m cut was the most extreme of three options put forward by civil servants. However, even the best case scenario would see the department’s budget slashed by £10m over the next two years.

In the report, officials from the Department of Finance warned that all rural affairs programmes would have to be put on hold.

But SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone said such a move would set rural development in the Province back years.

“If these cuts are allowed to go ahead, unchallenged, they will rip the heart out of communities, deplete services and diminish capacity within rural areas. That cannot be allowed to happen,” he added.

The Orange Order also as added its voice to the growing concern over proposals to cease funding for rural development schemes, with CEO Iain Carlisle stating that the programmes have a “valuable impact” on isolated communities.

He added: “We would encourage the Department of Finance to recognise the valuable impact which relatively modest sums of funding have had on isolated, and often hard to reach demographic groups, in our society.”

The remarks came ahead of today’s closing date for the budget outlook consultation 2018-2020.

A DAERA spokesman told the News Letter that the options put forward in the budget outlook are “purely illustrative and there is no preferred scenario”.

He added: “They are not proposed budget settlements and no decisions have yet been taken. It will be for ministers to decide on the way forward.”

Elsewhere, SDLP MLA Justin McNulty MLA has said that further cuts to the arts sector of up to 8% could force a “severe unrecoverable crisis” for many groups.

He added: “Arts are seen as an easy target. However, an enormous amount of community development work and reconciliation is done through the medium of arts.”

Meanwhile, students’ union NUS-USI president Olivia Potter-Hughes said last month’s budget outlook paper paints a picture of “scorched-earth budgetary policy”.

She added: “One wonders whether the sole function of this document was to try and scare parties back in to devolved government here?

“If so, it appears not to have worked and seems only to have caused significant worry amongst people who depended on public services and on important government schemes.”