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Column: Proposals to overhaul the local authority system will hurt community development

The LEADER programme has been a shining example of community and rural development for 20 years. Why is Minister Hogan trying to wind it down, asks Chris Byrne.

Chris Byrne

LATE LAST YEAR, Environment Minister Phil Hogan launched the policy document ‘Putting People First’, which sought to overhaul the outdated local authority system. While much subsequent media attention focused on plans to abolish town councils and introduce a streamlined local authority system, a less reported section focuses on winding down the LEADER programme.

In effect, the document foresees the diversion of LEADER’s financial resources into local authority structures under the ‘alignment’ process. If implemented, the Minister’s plan would see ‘shadow quangos’ formed under the auspices of the remaining local authorities.

These entities would act as a layer between the government department allocating the EU funds and the development companies that operate the LEADER programme. These companies would in turn approve the money they receive to local enterprise and community groups.  Was ‘alignment’ not meant to eliminate such bureaucracy?

Alignment could see Ireland lose EU funding

If this plan comes into effect, Ireland may lose a significant proportion of its funding as Europe plans to pay a 10 per cent premium to states that operate the community-led approach to rural development.  This amount is difficult to calculate until the overall EU budget is agreed, but could equate to €47 million, based on the current funding. If ‘alignment’ becomes a reality, it is very difficult to see how Ireland would be eligible to receive this premium.

Aside from funding, Minister Hogan’s ‘alignment’ would cause an even greater loss to community and rural development, as the development companies don’t just rubber-stamp applications and pay out money.

Each company operates its own multi-annual plan for economic and community development and provides invaluable advice and expertise to small businesses and communities at grassroots level. This involves staff meeting rural promoters and communities during and after normal working hours.

The cost of administration will rise – not fall

Minister Hogan also claims that putting local authorities in charge of LEADER’s administrative activities would be more cost-effective. This is not the case. The maximum cost of LEADER’s operating budget is 28 per cent – approximately half the administrative cost of equivalent development bodies. Bearing in mind that most if not all LEADER companies will come in under the agreed budget by the end of the programme, calling their valuable work wasteful administration does not stack up.

Local development staff are not public servants and do not enjoy the same generous remuneration, terms and conditions or security of employment. What saving will be made by diverting duties from experienced LEADER company staff to inexperienced public servants on more favourable terms?

Given Minister Hogan’s plan to strip away LEADER’s essential support services, it is unsurprising that there has been widespread opposition. This has come from the development companies, the Irish Farmers’ Association and a wide cross-section of community and voluntary groups involved in rural and urban development, all of whom understand the LEADER approach is the model the EU prefers.

The EU Court of Auditors has commended existing practices

The Minister has attempted to dismiss this point. Speaking in the Dáil on 30 January, he cited the most recent (2010) EU Court of Auditors report on LEADER, which he claimed “did not single Ireland out for any special mention”. Contrary to what he claimed, this report does make several specific references to Ireland’s practices and commented favourably on many aspects of it.

The Minister also contends he has support for ‘alignment’ in Brussels – but a key point in the same auditors report contradicts this claim. It states: “The potential added value of a [LEADER] partnership was not achieved … where the decision-making was dominated by local authorities.”

As the report notes, making the local authorities the dominant decision-making partner in community-led development is not constructive or beneficial. However, this is Minister Hogan’s goal and it forms the crux of our dispute with him.

The Minister should be aware that the Irish LEADER system is not unique in the EU. Ireland shares community-led structures with the most successful rural development systems – those in Finland, Sweden, Austria, Portugal and Spain – which the EU wants other states to emulate.

The companies that run LEADER have an enviable track record of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Given the programme’s strong record over the past 22 years, it is unfair that Minister Hogan focuses on questionable organisational systems, which afflicted a limited number of cases.  Indeed, neither of the two cases he frequently refers to provide evidence of systematic failure.

The Minister’s willingness to use such exceptional cases weakens his argument. Although he claims these issues arose due to a lack of central role by local authorities in “planning, decision-making and oversight of local development programmes”, the same criticism could be made about the local authority system or Government departments.

Will LEADER funds be used to fund other local authority activities?

Finally, we return to financial resources. The Commission’s European Economic and Social Committee stated that LEADER funds cannot be used to make up the shortfall for “insufficient municipal revenues and financing public services at local level”. Our concern is that if the ‘alignment’ proposal is implemented, LEADER funds could be used to fund other local authority activities.

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LEADER delivers a multitude of large and small projects to our communities and small businesses, improving the quality of life for people across Ireland. The programme has done this in an efficient manner.

That’s not to suggest we resist change. The development companies are flexible and the fact that our staff put in unsocial hours to provide essential support services to funded companies, schemes and projects speaks for itself.

We are also willing to work closely with local authorities in a partnership of equals to ensure our communities benefit from an integrated social and economic strategy. All we ask is that we retain the autonomy and impartiality of action that we were designed to deliver and that we are funded directly to protect this independence and sustainability.

By the EU’s measure, LEADER is something Ireland does exceptionally well. Let’s not close a programme that benefits communities across the country – LEADER is an initiative we should all be proud of.

Chris Byrne has been involved in a voluntary capacity with LEADER for 18 years, initially as a member of an Evaluation Committee and later as a Board member and more recently as Chair of County Kildare LEADER Partnership. He lives in Kilmeague, Naas County Kildare and is married to Gwen with four children and six grandchildren. Self employed for over 35 years, he is Managing Director of Coilog Equestrian, Kilmeague Landscape Ltd, and Coilog Nurseries Ltd. Chris is a licenced  amateur jockey, very active in show jumping and involved in the equestrian and horticulture industries.

To learn more about LEADER visit LeaderPartnership.ie or LeaderEast.ie

About the author:

Chris Byrne

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