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Column Is anybody interested in the silent destruction of our communities?

Community projects decimated by funding reductions in recent budgets now face the prospect of commercial companies taking over their role, writes Rory Hearne.

COMMUNITY PROJECTS WORKING across the country, from small rural towns and villages to the larger cities, have been decimated by funding reductions and policy changes introduced in recent budgets and are now facing the prospect of commercial companies taking over their role.

These projects provide a range of vital supports and services (such as after school clubs, youth activities, health work, computer training, childcare) to many communities and particularly to our most disadvantaged areas affected by isolation, lack of public services, low second and third level participation, high unemployment, and poverty. They also work with excluded and discriminated groups such as the LGBT community, migrants, and Travellers.

The community development work undertaken by these local organisations is focused on promoting positive social change, seeking to challenge the causes of poverty and disadvantage through participation and empowerment, and to offer new opportunities for those lacking choice, power and resources. These are the frontline workers and defenders of human rights for the marginalised in our society. Yet there is very little awareness of what has been happening to them over the last few years of austerity.

Disproportionate cuts

While austerity has hit most people in Irish society, these groups have been singled out for disproportionate cuts to funding and the forced closure of services. There has been an overall percentage reduction in general government spending in the period 2008-2013 of 7 per cent – however, funding for the Local and Community Development Programme, which funds a lot of these services, was cut from €84.7m in 2008 to €48m this year. That is a devastating 43.3 per cent reduction.

Other examples include youth services being cut by 20 per cent over the period; funding for the National Regeneration Programme, aimed at providing upgraded housing and community facilities to disadvantaged areas in cities like Limerick, Cork, and Dublin, was reduced from €121 million in 2008, to €80 million in 2013; services and projects working for, and with, Travellers have also been significantly cut, for example, the community development programme for Travellers being reduced by 42.3 per cent.

Since this Government came to power it has also terminated the Ceantair Laga Árd-Riachtanais (CLÁR) programme aimed at high priority, weak rural areas and also continued to wind down the RAPID programme. The RAPID programme had expenditure of approximately €10 million in 2009 but this has been reduced to less than €2 million, a reduction of more than 80 per cent.

These cuts have resulted in a devastating reduction in community services as local projects have been forced to close, reduce workers’ hours, and make staff redundant. This has resulted in the loss of 11,150 front-line jobs with total job losses expected to reach 17,000, or one third of the total number of jobs in the community sector, by 2017.

Disregarding the important role these projects play

The injustice of these austerity policies was explained recently by a community worker from a Dublin-based project: “These are community-driven projects that continually work to weave and strengthen the social fabric of disadvantaged communities in the face of huge threats by the withdrawal and abandonment of both public and private services. Community-based organisations have become the final line of defence for many vulnerable residents. These organisations help maintain some semblance of dignity for residents in face of acute poverty. Many community-based projects are delivering services at a fraction of the cost it would take the state to deliver them.”

It appears that the Irish state, despite policy commitments, is disregarding the important role these projects play in local communities and is threatening their very existence. Along with the austerity funding cuts, the government is transferring community development projects away from management by local communities, and instead giving the funding and responsibility to local authorities who have been dismissive and hostile to such community empowerment work.

Furthermore, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, as part of the Local Government Reform Act 2014, has proposed to privatise community services. This means that the Local and Community Development Programme will be open to a competitive tendering process, overseen by local authorities, where commercial firms can bid to provide community services. So private, for profit, companies could be taking over community projects that have served these communities for decades.

It is very difficult to see the logic in this and how it will fulfil the Government’s stated aims of social inclusion and social justice. Communities, with the support of organisations like the Community Workers Co-op and the trade union SIPTU, are campaigning against these proposals. But two questions remain unanswered. Firstly, why do the government parties and state agencies (Department of Environment and Local Authorities) appear determined to get rid of the heart of our most vulnerable communities? And, secondly, for readers, why is there such little awareness and interest in what is happening to these communities?

Dr Rory Hearne is a Lecturer in Geography NUIM, member of Claiming Our Future and former community worker.

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