Northern Ireland's £623m Rural Development Programme (RDP) 2014-2020 has been approved by the European Commission.

This Rural Development Plan approval paves the way for funding to become available for improving farming and agri-food businesses, protecting the environment and supporting rural development projects across the North.

The North's agricultural minister, Michelle O'Neill said that the approval is very positive news, not just for the North's rural communities, but for everyone in the North of Ireland.

"The new Rural Development Programme will provide opportunities for our rural communities and farmers alike.

"I’m confident that every single penny allocated as part of this programme will go towards creating rural jobs, developing our rural infrastructure and investing in the future sustainability of the farming industry," she said.

The programme will also provide fantastic cross-border initiatives focusing on tourism and further integrating border communities.

O'Neill said that the approval of the RDP is the culmination of over three years of work from her department and its stakeholders beginning in 2012, before the European rural development regulations were agreed.

"Since then we have been working with our stakeholders across the agriculture, environmental and rural development sectors to develop a balanced programme that meets their needs while helping to support the growth of our rural areas.

"Over the next few years, we will see hundreds of projects will benefit from this programme which is great news for communities and businesses across the North," she said.

In July 2014, Executive approval was granted for a RDP containing support worth up to £623M, made up of:

  • Up to £257m for improving the competitiveness of our farm and agri-food businesses, including up to £220m for a Farm Business Improvement Scheme.
  • Up to £249m for protecting and enhancing our natural environment, including £100m for an Environmental Farming Scheme.
  • £80m for broader rural development measures, including £70m of support delivered through Local Action Groups.

Looking towards the next steps for the Programme, the North's Minister said that she expects the first phase of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme to get under way later this year, with the establishment of Business Development Groups for farmers.

The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) has welcomed the RDP approval and it has now urged Michelle O’Neill, to deliver the funding as quickly as possible without the excessive red tape that has plagued the previous programmes.

UFU President Ian Marshall said that it's important DARD ensures a smooth delivery of this programme.

"It is vital that the various strategic measures are opened as soon as possible and targeted to allow farmers and rural communities to benefit from these schemes," he said.