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LEADER groups fear annihilation

Thursday, 7th February, 2013 9:18am
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LEADER groups fear annihilation

BY LEO McMAHON

LOCAL development companies (LDCs), such as West Cork Development Partnership and SECAD, which have successfully administered the EU LEADER programme in mainly rural communities, are at loggerheads with Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan over his proposal to align these bodies with city and county councils.

Fears have been expressed that the move announced last week could result in job losses and that the LDCs will be gobbled up to become an extra layer of bureaucracy and, inevitably, lead to the proposed new socio-economic committees (SECs) becoming politicised, but this was rejected on Monday by the Department of Local Government.

As part of its ‘Putting People First’ policy, the government intends to establish 15-member SECs within councils to deliver EU funding for community-led projects and claims this will be more cost-efficient. However, LDCs believe that being no longer able to apply for the contract for EU LEADER rural development programme amounted to annihilation.

Chief executive of West Cork Development Partnership (WCDP), Ian Dempsey, said the move amounted to an undermining of the successful LEADER methodology and, if the existing five LDCs in Cork were consolidated into one SEC, it would reduce engagement to a fraction of the current level.

Responding on behalf of WCDP, he queried the effectiveness of strategic planning for programmes being based on council or city boundaries, rather than natural areas of development. He also argued that transferring LDC administration funds to support local authority administration would not only serve to create a more costly layer of bureaucracy, but also result in a loss of local autonomy, representation, resources, skills, input and expertise into decision making, strategic planning, delivery and oversight of a wide range of economic, social and local development programmes with consequent reductions of local input, volunteerism and active citizenship.

The proposed new system would be further removed from local needs and there would also be further attrition and loss of services offered directly to rural areas, said Mr Dempsey, who went as far as saying it would threaten the continued viability and solvency of LDCs and probably result in the loss of substantial employment, since it wasn’t anticipated existing staff would transfer to local authorities, which themselves are subject to a moratorium on recruitment and seeking further cuts.

Mr Dempsey said LDCs had a strong case for continued autonomy, according to various EU bodies, and drew attention to the findings of the EU Court of Auditors stating that the potential added value of a partnership was not achieved in LDCs where decision making was dominated by local authorities. Furthermore, the EU Economic and Social Committee stated: ‘It is clear that LEADER cannot be used as a means of making up for insufficient municipal revenues and financing public services at local level.’

While accepting that the Minister didn’t wish to do away with LDCs, it was feared that if ‘alignment’ became ‘integration’ then effectively the local development model was lost and it was hard to see how all that had been achieved to date by WCDP and others could be matched in future by a local authority-led scheme and urged the need to always keep the focus on how best to serve the people.

In 2011, WCDP, which is one of 51 LDCs in Ireland, oversaw the allocation of €3.5m to numerous projects from its office in West Cork Technology Park, Clonakilty. It has initiated the world-renowned Fuchsia regional food brand as well as spearheading the Rural Social Scheme, Better Energy Warmer Homes, Tús and Rural Recreation Schemes and assisted various amenity and other projects in the towns and villages of West Cork over the past 20 years.

Opposition to the alignment proposal is being led by the Irish Local Development Network, which in the past year supported 1.644 enterprise and administered €200m in funding. It contends that the change would cost the Government more than €20m, could put 2,000 jobs at risk and could even jeopardise further EU funding for the 2014-2020 period.

CEO of South and East Cork Area Development (SECAD) Ryan Howard said: ‘Under the current programme, Europe gives us 55% of our funding and the Government 45%. If the SECs are not put in place, we will get 65% and the Government will only have to fund 35%.

‘Decision making will be taken from SECAD, WCDP and others and into a small group controlled and managed by the management of County Hall. ‘Department officials say that this will be less costly; but how can it cost less if you are adding a new layer of bureaucracy and inevitable duplication?

‘They say that it will be more democratic; but how can taking power away from local communities be more inclusive? They say that it will be more efficient; but does anyone believe that massive countywide structures will be less costly in terms of administration and more effective in meeting local needs?

‘They say that they want LDCs to retain core skills and that we will continue to get some monies; but how can the volunteer boards of these groups continue to offer employment contracts when they no longer have the contract for the core LEADER funding that is underpinning these employees today?’ asked Mr Howard.

‘This proposal by a group of centrally-based officials is one of the most ill-conceived and dangerous ideas in terms of its attack on local community effort, democracy and decision making. For around 20 years, groups such as SECAD and WCDP have slowly developed a strong set of relationships with local businesses and communities and are respected by the European Commission in how this has evolved.

‘These reputations will be decimated if the core LEADER contracts are taken from these bodies. It will result in losses of funding for local development, losses of relationships between agencies, communities and entrepreneurs and a loss of what has become one of Europe’s best models for investment in local ideas and people. Investment in our urban and rural areas could potentially be eradicated by this extra layer of bureaucracy,’ he warned.

‘We are asking people across Ireland to stand up to this massive assault on local community structures and to remind this Government that if they still represent their local community that they will be held to account for its demise if they allow this anti-community proposal to proceed,’ Mr Howard added.

There has also been support for the full autonomy of LDCs from the IFA. Vice-chairman of WCDP board of directors, Cllr Patrick Gerard Murphy (Fianna Fáil), said he, too, disagreed with the proposal. The bottom-up approach had delivered and ensured close connections to local people and groups who were the main beneficiaries.

It was also recognised by the EU as the best approach. He added he had no objection to the county council working closely with LDCs, as done with the Schull amphitheatre and Warren amenity projects.

A similar view has been expressed by the IFA rural development chairman Flor McCarthy and LDCs in other parts of Co Cork, Kerry and Waterford.

Minister Hogan, in a statement through his spokesperson on Monday, said: ‘The current local development structures were not the most efficient method of delivering services to local communities. The Alignment Steering Group that the Minister set up to review this area noted the complex range of structures and entities that deliver local and community development supports, all with their own administration overheads.

‘The group reported that “these administration functions carry significant costs and can divert resources from frontline services.” It also noted the duplication and overlap that resulted from the complexity of the local development landscape.

‘The Minister is tackling these issues. We simply have to look for more cost-effective delivery mechanisms in the current economic climate.

‘The Action Programme for Effective Local Government - Putting People First’ recommends greater alignment between local government and local development, including the 51 LDCs that currently deliver important programmes for my department, amongst others.

‘The government accepted the recommendations made by the group. Under those proposals, LDCs will continue to have a role in local development delivery. There is no logic therefore to the statement that 2,000 jobs will be lost through alignment, as has been alleged. What we need is a more streamlined system, which is fit for purpose, and eliminates unnecessary duplication’.

The Minister stressed that there were no proposals to amalgamate local development companies into local authorities. ‘Under the recommendations, LDCs will continue to have a role in local development activities and programmes. The availability of funding to LDCs and the level of such funding is dependent on the programme activities that they are contracted to deliver. In line with the group’s recommendations, the local development model is to be retained and LDCs will continue to have a delivery role.

‘Both Minister Hogan and the department have met with the representatives of local development companies on these matters and this dialogue will continue as the process is advanced,’ the spokesperson added.

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