The Ulster Unionist Party has called upon the Northern Ireland Executive to create a strategy specifically targeted towards developing the economic potential currently offered across rural Northern Ireland, claiming that until it does so Stormont is ‘ignoring an open goal’.
The Party’s Agriculture Spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson MLA stated that the agricultural industry already makes a significant contribution to the Northern Ireland economy: it now has an annual output of some £1.5bn and when taken together with the production and processing industries, is one of Northern Ireland’s largest employers. The agri-food sector alone sustains one in five jobs in Northern Ireland’s private sector workforce.
Mrs Dobson said;
“Despite the significant challenges which the Northern Ireland economy is currently facing, many financial institutions and economists are identifying agriculture, as well as the wider rural economy, as a sector with very strong future growth figures. However many are noting with bewilderment that the Executive is letting such an obvious opportunity slip by the wayside.
There are a number of particular aspects of the rural economy that the Ulster Unionist Party wants to see better utilised. Firstly the agri-food industry here has been one of the strongest performers of all sectors in our local economy in recent years and has significant potential to grow further. Not only are consumers seeking to buy more local produce, the fact that Great Britain has now got a trade deficit in food of over £18billion - combined with a spiralling global population - means that there is massive potential for export. The cumulative employment of the agri-food industry here is already well over 90,000 jobs; with only a little more support my Party believes that this figure could be increased immensely.
There are also huge opportunities offered in terms of green renewable energy. Whilst there has been a target set to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 35% by 2025; the Executive has yet convincingly detail how the target is going to be met. Northern Ireland has some of the best energy generating resources in the UK but yet they aren’t being exploited. The UUP wants to see the mentality of the planning system changed so that farmers and landowners are encouraged to invest in the generation of renewable energy rather than having to jump through hoops and work their way through layers of red tape as is currently the case. We also wish to see a new initiative to improve skills in the Forestry sector, as well as greater emphasis placed on increasing the total area of planted woodland across the Province.
Rural areas of Northern Ireland also include some of our most picturesque tourist locations, however far too often these go unnoticed and unsupported. There is considerable scope to boost the contribution rural tourism makes to the overall economy here however it will take genuine recognition, and ultimately support, from the Executive in order to make the most out of the current opportunities. Whilst I am delighted that projects such as the Titanic Signature Building in Belfast have been given support, I believe it would be counterproductive to forget about our own smaller indigenous tourist industry.
Jo-Anne Dobson, who sits on Stormont’s Agriculture and Rural Development, concluded by remarking;
“The Coalition Government last month announced a strong package of new measures designed to stimulate sustainable growth in the rural economy across England. As part of the Growth Review the Government is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in order to stimulate sustainable growth and help rural businesses to reach their full potential. If anything, Northern Ireland is in a much stronger position than our counterparts in GB to develop rural business – however until the Executive actually produce a long-term strategy, then it will continue to unfortunately miss a blatantly clear opportunity for growth.”