NI minister plans to transform rural life


Northern Ireland's new Agriculture minister wants to take action to transform the health and education of thousands of country-dwellers.

Michelle Gildernew will seek a mandate from ministerial colleagues this autumn for a policy review which could also have implications for transport and employment. Isolated areas have suffered from the closure of local schools and many village post offices are also due to be abandoned.

The Ulster Farmers' Union welcomed the move and said members were under increasing pressure. "We don't want to see desertification of country areas, if the farmers come off the hills then a lot of communities will die," Deputy President Graham Furey said.

The rural white paper would cut across departments and would need wide support. It could produce fresh legislation. Some country people have campaigned against planning restrictions known as Planning Policy 14, a ministerial decree in March 2006.

A separate review is under way but farmers have warned the measure will force increasing numbers of young people to migrate to the towns. Environmentalists have backed the step for preventing unsustainable development. Mr Furey added: "Rural development is a key issue. You need the roads and communications, local schools, it is all inter-linked.

"You are not going to start a rural business unless you have those things in place." He said there needed to be a sharp rise in sums paid to farmers for their produce, aside from subsidies which he said were to allow farmers to comply with official restrictions over the environment. Minister Gildernew said she needed the go-ahead from her colleagues before drawing up detailed proposals.

"Forty one per cent of people live in the rural community and we want to see policy being looked at that reflects that need," she said. "It is a rural white paper but it will be something that the entire executive will hopefully buy into. "It is clear to us that all government departments, not just DARD, deliver services that impact on rural areas."

The Sinn Fein minister, who is from a country area of south Tyrone known as the Brantry, has been faced with a series of challenges to rural life. The minister said the initiative was designed to ensure rural areas are taken into account.

She will meet with unions and officials about the Post Office action. Up to 200 offices will close under the Department of Trade in London's plans for greater efficiency after stiff competition.

Ms Gildernew added that they would talk to all stakeholders, including the Assembly's Agriculture committee, and said they would adopt an inclusive and long-term approach. "I am hoping to put in place mechanisms that really deliver on rural-proofing, making a meaningful contribution," she said.