I MET SIMON Stenson for the first time today. He lost his job in construction in recent years. Faced with unemployment, he didn’t rest on his laurels; with his wife, Siobhán, he founded Cherry Blossom Bakery to produce artisan breads and confectionery, using only natural ingredients. The bakery now employs nine people – all former construction workers – and supplies over 100 stores in five counties in the West of Ireland. Plans are underway for it to go nationwide very soon.
Simon is just one of thousands of entrepreneurs who have received practical support from a local development company to help make their business a success. When he was starting out, in late 2010, he approached South West Mayo Development Company for assistance. He told me today that, without the funding, mentoring and training he received from them, he couldn’t have gotten Cherry Blossom Bakery off the ground.
There are 50 local development companies in Ireland, covering every corner of the country. They can be known by different names – such as Local Area Partnerships, LEADER Partnerships or Integrated Development Companies – but they share a number of key features: they focus on promoting local economic development, addressing inequality and social exclusion; and have an emphasis on a ‘bottom-up’ approach – working with communities to develop local solutions to local issues. All local development companies are independent and not-for-profit.
Community-led development under ‘serious threat’
The model of community-led development pioneered by local development companies over the past 20 years is now under serious threat. In October, the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government published a report proposing a number of reforms for the local government sector. One of its suggestions is to remove the core funding currently received by local development companies (through programmes like LEADER and the Local and Community Development Programme) and to route it instead through new local authority-led bodies, which would be known as Socio-Economic Committees.
Without core funding, local development companies could not survive. Some 2,000 people are currently employed in these companies; their jobs would be at risk because many local development companies would be forced to close.
Furthermore, entrepreneurs like Simon Stenson would suffer – as would job-seekers, rural enterprises, tourism initiatives and community-based projects. In 2011 alone, local development companies supported 5,223 people into self-employment and assisted 1,644 enterprises. A further 9,000 people were supported into employment, and over 28,000 were supported into education or training. These results are made possible because of the community-led approach adopted by local development companies.
If the establishment of the Socio-Economic Committees goes ahead, decision-making and funding will be removed from community-led bodies with a proven track record of success, and placed in the hands of local authorities. This makes no sense: Ireland’s current system of local development is viewed as a model of best practice at European level. The European Court of Auditors, for example, has strongly criticised the excessive involvement of local authorities in the implementation of LEADER in other countries, so it is unlikely the changes being proposed by the Government would be welcomed within the EU.
Work underpinned by volunteerism
Furthermore, local development companies offer good value for money. A huge amount of their work is underpinned by volunteerism. They are all managed by voluntary boards; they operate on tight budgets; and they have proven their capacity to focus on service-delivery rather than ratcheting up high administrative costs.
I met Simon Stenson this morning because we were both in Dublin to highlight our concerns about the proposed local government reforms. TheIrish Local Development Network – the representative body for the country’s 50 local development companies – had organised a day-long political briefing. Representatives of every local development company were present to meet their local TDs and Senators and explain to them why they are seriously concerned about the proposals for reform.
We organised today’s event to show how the local government reforms – if they go ahead – will destroy community-led local development. Minister Phil Hogan has agreed to discuss our concerns with us over the coming weeks, which is a move we welcome. In the meantime, our members will maintain ongoing contact with their local political representatives in relation to this issue.
John Walsh is Acting Chairperson of the Irish Local Development Network (ILDN), the national representative body for Ireland’s 50 local development companies. He is also Chairperson of the Voluntary Board of Ballyhoura Development, a local development company covering the areas of South and East Limerick and North East Cork.