THEN former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan – now the EU agriculture supremo – took it upon himself to change our system of local government, he ripped the heart out of local democracy. The words ‘slash and burn’ also come to mind concerning the changes he made before jumping on board the Brussels gravy train in relation to the delivery of the new LEADER programme for 2014-2020, which will see control of this funding being vested in local authorities, potentially undermining the bottom-up community-led local development companies that have heretofore driven rural development projects at grassroots level – and very successfully too.
The biggest problem is, of course, money – the lack of it in this case. While it was known that there were going to be cuts in the current tranche of LEADER funding, the scale of these has been truly shocking, leading several people to question the authorities’ commitment to rural areas, which constantly remain the poor relation of their urban counterparts. The average cut to LEADER funding was over 40%, but the allocation for Cork – even though it was the highest in the country – was cut by a massive 70%, down from €49,233,264 for the years 2007-2013 to €13,938,823 for 2014-2020.
What is most baffling about these cuts is how they were arrived at, especially in Cork’s case. Who pre-determined what funding would be needed and on what basis?
During the good times, admittedly, LEADER companies were so awash with funds that were hardly able to give the money away. However, the latest allocation has gone to the other extreme at a time when such funding was never more necessary for rural development in areas which have been decimated by the economic downturn.
Hogan’s successor as minister, Alan Kelly, who is stubbornly sticking to the more centralised model, made one very valid point at the launch of the Rural Development Programme that too much of this funding was used in the past for local historical books or to develop rural tourism brochures: ‘This time it has to be spent on projects that will sustain employment in a community,’ he declared, pointing to the example of a local co-operative tea shop in his own constituency in North Tipperary and calling for future projects to be centred on village renewal.
He argued that LEADER funding is only one facet of this and that local authorities should also be giving better value to places in return for rates paid to them by local people and businesses, which is correct in theory, but we have yet to see this in practice and could be waiting for a long time for it to happen, given how cash-strapped and resource-poor councils have become in recent years. While it may happen in time, it is rather glib to even contemplate an immediate Damascene conversion on the part of local authorities.
West Cork will be getting roughly €5m (a 66% cut) of the almost €14m allocated to the county for between now and 2020, but in a rather extreme irony, rural Dublin has been allocated over €6m. As West Cork Development Partnership CEO Ian Dempsey commented, the problems facing communities in greater Dublin are not comparable to those in West Cork, saying he didn’t think anybody could equate the issues in rural areas bordering the capital with the scale of economic and community need of the country’s peripheral areas.
He is correct in saying that West Cork and its 80,000 people have been ‘badly served’ in the new round of LEADER funding, even though our local TDs were busy trotting out generic press releases with government ‘spin’ welcoming it. As West Cork Sinn Féin county councillor Rachel McCarthy remarked, it seemed ‘beyond belief’ that government representatives were out in the media selling this as a positive development.
Perhaps they should take a step back and look at the bigger picture, because what is on offer here is not going to stop rural communities falling further behind urban areas as the economic recovery begins to take hold. Issues affecting many of our people, such as rural isolation, closure or curtailment of services, poverty, mental health, social exclusion and long-term unemployment, especially among young people, need to be tackled if areas such as West Cork are to have a viable future.
We need a lot more than village tea rooms.