Mr Arnold Hatch speaks about generational renewal and EU support for rural employment
An ACRE event in Slovakia is taking place today, entitled "A Journey to Self-sufficiency: New Ideas for Increasing Employment in Rural Areas of Europe". Speakers include ACRE's Council Member Jana Zitnanska MEP, the Mayor of Presov, and the keynote: Arnold Hatch, President of the Northern Irish Local Government Association. As a member of the Committee of the Regions, he has been a key rapporteur of a report on this very issue.
Below is a text of Mr. Hatch's keynote speech delivered today in Presov, Slovakia.
I'm very pleased to be here with you today, and I'm very pleased that we can discuss fighting youth unemployment in rural areas, a topic that is particularly close to my heart.
I do not think I need to persuade anyone here of the importance of protecting our rural communities and sustaining them, for this generation and those yet to come. They are a national, European and global asset of incalculable value and one that, once lost, can never be recreated.
Colleagues, I represent Northern Ireland, a part of the EU with a vibrant rural community and an important agricultural economy. Almost 40% of our population lives in rural areas. We have a high number of family farms in comparison with other parts of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, we have been deeply touched by the crisis in the agricultural sector – even without considering the uncertainties caused by Brexit – and we are witness to a drift of young people away from the countryside and farming, and into our urban centres.
In Northern Ireland we are an outlying peripheral region which is already at a distinct disadvantage to the UK mainland in terms of connectivity, access to markets, transport costs and increased costs of doing business.
In order to address and reverse the tide, we try to make the best use of the Rural Development Programme. The RDP for Northern Ireland was formally adopted in 2015 and our financial envelope is 760 million EUR for the 2014-2020 programming period. It is partially financed by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and partially by the Department of Agriculture, Environment & Rural Affairs. We use our allocation mainly for local development in rural areas and increasing the competitiveness of our agri-food sector.
Almost 20% of our farms will benefit from investment support to modernise and restructure their businesses in the 2014-2020 financial perspective. This is very important because farmers often feel they do not have sufficient resources to improve the economic and environmental performance of their holdings.
10% of our farms and 25% of agri-food businesses will receive support to develop short supply chains, local markets, and promotional activities.
We also deliver the priorities of the Rural Development Programme through via the so-called LEADER Local Action Groups.
As you will know, the LEADER programme is a European Union initiative to support rural development projects initiated at the local level in order to revitalise rural areas and create jobs.
Decisions on LEADER funding are made at a local level by a Local Action Group. Such Group is made up of people from the local community as well as from the local public and private sector. In South Atrim for example, the Group is comprised of representatives from the area of business, community, agriculture, council and statutory sectors. It is complemented and supported by a wider Local Action Group which comprises of almost 40 additional members.
The biggest advantage of such localist approach is that the actual focus and balance of the expenditure of funding across the measures is on the basis of our locally-developed, needs-based strategy. As local authorities we are the level closest to the people and we know best what actions would be most effective. In other words, policies drafted at our level of government often bring better results than those prepared at national or supranational level.
One of the Local Action Groups has been created in my district. It is called Southern Organisation for Action in Rural Areas (SOAR) and it supports the rural community in the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council area.
The rural population within this area represents 48% of the total population so such support is very much valued. The SOAR scheme helps to support local businesses and to create local jobs. All projects have to demonstrate a significant impact within a rural area. Job creation is the primary objective. Those projects which create new jobs receive higher marks at assessment stage and are able to apply for larger grants.
One of the goals of SOAR is to increase economic activity and employment rates in the wider rural economy through encouraging and supporting the creation and development of micro and small enterprises. This includes on-farm diversification, but also non-agricultural activities and private tourism.
Our first call for proposals resulted in a high number of applications, from which 24 projects have been selected. These are very diverse projects. To give you some examples – we allocated £90,000 to a private enterprise for the construction of an electronic assembly facility; £50,000 for a waste-water sludge-decanting machine; and almost £60,000 for the purchase of a plasma-cutting machine.
Support is primarily targeted at rural areas. With some minor exceptions, towns with a population of more than 5,000 are excluded. The funding provides capital grants, with some resource funds towards bespoke training and marketing.
We try to make the application process as easy as possible. To this end we organised procurement workshops in Armagh, Craigavon and Bandbridge to assist the applicants. The workshops provide essential information to applicants on the pre-requisites needed to support their application, namely having a business plan, match funding, planning permission if needed and quotations to support project costs. The programmes have to be realistic in terms of demands to allow the participation of small businesses.
Similar activities are undertaken in other parts of Northern Ireland. For example the "Generating Rural Opportunities Within South Antrim" programme has been set up to manage and deliver LEADER priorities of the Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme across the Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough Council area. The initiatives range from support for new micro-enterprises to helping existing businesses to grow and prosper. Let me give you two examples of such initiatives:
- in Ballyclare one of the local inhabitants was awarded funding to bring back to life the pond which had been used by the mill until it closed. The site was converted into a trout fishery. The business operates as a day ticket fishery offering. It also works with schools in the local area to host visits for educational workshops, for example, environmental gardening and hedgerow wildlife observations.
- in Doagh project promoters received grant assistance to convert a disused barn into a conference and training facility. Funding was awarded to refurbish the existing building, involving structural work, roofing, flooring, the installation of windows, shower facilities and a heating system and decoration.
As part of the Rural Development Programme in Northern Ireland, we have focused on the sectors that could best replace agriculture as the economic drivers in the local economy.
But our diversification efforts do not mean that we forget about farmers. Last year the European Committee of the Regions adopted unanimously my position paper on the topic of "supporting young European farmers". I highlighted in this document that generational renewal is an absolute priority for our rural communities.
This is because the farming population in the EU is getting older at a rapid rate. For each young farmer – aged 35 years or younger – there are approximately 9 farmers older than 55 years.
Many young people want to get into farming, but they face obstacles. Let me mention some of these obstacles which prevent young people from taking up agricultural activity, and identify potential bottom-up solutions.
Firstly, we need to be looking into ways to promote and simplify farm transfers between more experienced farmers and new entrants. The European Commission developed funds that support knowledge transfer activities such as training, demonstration activities, farm visits, and exchanges for a practice-oriented learning process. It is our duty as local politicians to make our farming communities more aware of these existing opportunities.
Next, let me move from access to land to access to finance. Lack of financial backing for young people is a major inhibitor for them to get into farming. Young farmers usually have little resources at their disposal and therefore the lending institutions are rather distrustful towards them.
Finally, as citizens and local politicians we need to be bold in passing messages to national governments. We should for instance ask them to consider changing the area-based basic subsidy payments and instead support farmers through grants for farm business investments. This could help new entrants to enter the farming profession. Because we are in the process of reviewing the Common Agricultural Policy, now is the perfect opportunity to raise your concerns with your MEPs and national authorities.
Allow me to conclude on a positive note. While the perception of rural areas in many parts of Europe is negative, in some parts of Europe the reality is very different. In my home country people who live in rural areas are still statistically happier and have higher average median income. On average, citizens living in rural Northern Ireland live two years longer than their urban counterparts.
But we cannot be complacent. With rural depopulation being a significant issue for many rural and outlying regions across Europe there is an important role for public authorities not only to create jobs for those who stayed, but also to promote the region to returnees.
The Comeback Elbe-Elster project in Germany is an inspiring example of the need to address the challenges in attracting people to return and to provide them with the professional support following their arrival. Projects like these are particularly beneficial in rural areas that are far from major centres or universities. Providing access to consulting opportunities, shared working spaces and setting up networking opportunities for the new returnees are also important. The project demonstrates that whilst take up has been positive, these types of project need to be developed from bottom up to avoid resistance to the project’s objectives.