Community development

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1 Debates: Future of local development companies

The future of local development companies or partnerships in the alignment process was, as flagged earlier, discussed in the Seanad (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 22nd January 2013, 245-280).   Paschal Mooney (FF, agriculture) warned of the storm clouds gathering on this issue.  Without guaranteed funding, many of these companies would be forced to close and the state would lose a national infrastructure that could deliver labour and enterprise programmes at low cost.   The companies had more than twenty years’ experience of addressing disadvantage, poverty and social exclusion, he argued.  It would result in a takeover by the permanent government, which was only waiting to get its hands on LEADER money.

 

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan told him that he had been wrongly informed and was not properly briefed.  Paschal Mooney persisted, explained that he had been a councillor on the old partnership boards and that he genuinely believed that they were doing a valuable job in their bottom-up approach.  There would not be the same level of efficiency if they went into a socio-economic committee.  Why was the minister dismantling something that was not broken? he asked.  The system was working well and should be left alone.  

 

In her contribution, Fidelma Healy Eames (FG, labour) explained that she had worked with LEADER and valued LEADER – it was doing a great job.  A number of things must happen if we merged LEADER into the councils.  When the health boards were merged into the Health Service Executive (HSE), we got a dinosaur that did not work and we would probably have that again unless we were really careful: ‘I am setting out what I think will happen.  I am doing so for the good of the minister.  He had a practical head.  I know he will take this in and work it out. LEADER is doing a fantastic job.  I have seen the wonderful community development work it has done on playgrounds, pitches and local enterprise initiatives.  All of it has been done for the good of communities.  …If the minister decides to continue the process of merging LEADER into the councils, he needs to bear in mind that such a huge change cannot be delivered unless the department engages with the workers on the ground.  According to the most recent feedback that I have received, the department is refusing to talk to workers about alignment with the local authorities.  We do not want a new middle management layer in the councils.  That is what we got in the HSE.  I am deeply concerned about the possibility that the councils will be responsible for enterprise…because of the culture of the councils.  Everyone knows that when one rings a council office, much of the time the officials do not pay any heed.  One has to go through one’s public representatives to get rubbish picked up or potholes filled.’

 

Trevor O Clochartaigh (SF, agricultural) asked the minister to put rumours to rest and tell the development companies that he did not intend to dilute their role.  He asked had there been a cost-benefit analysis as to whether it was more efficient to deliver local services and schemes through local development companies or local authorities.  He attacked catch-words like ‘cohesion’ whereby the previous government had amalgamated and cohered the community development projects and partnerships: now ‘alignment’ was coming down the line.  It was about the same thing: taking power away from locally elected people, community and voluntary groups.  Local development companies were very concerned about this agenda being pushed by county managers and directors of services.

 

 

1,968 people – an enormous expense

The minister, Phil Hogan told him that he envisaged the community and local authorities as working closely together: ‘the 1,968 people who work in the community and partnership sector are an enormous expense.  Do we need to provide for synergies to ensure savings in administration such that money left over be available to provide for front-line services?  The structures we have in place will not be the kind we will be able to afford from 2014.  We must examine what savings we can achieve in local government to continue meeting some of the costs of administration.’  He went on to say that the democratically elected councillor would have a much greater say than he or she would have had when just sitting on the board.  The community sector would be working with him or her, closer than ever.  Redundancies would be required, he said.  He had told representatives of the Irish LEADER network, whom he had just met, that we should work together to agree on the socio-economic committees and the role of local government in respect of community involvement.  The local government system and the local and community sector will have to forge alliances more than ever to ensure the survival of the local development sector.  The community sector will require local authorities to help it. ‘As I travel around the country, I am very much aware that some county managers do not embrace the community and voluntary sector in the way they should and have not done so during the years.  I will challenge and urge them to forge the necessary links and relationships with it.  Only a finite sum of money will be available.  Let us determine how we can work together to ensure community programmes survive insofar as this is possible.  Let us also ensure that the local government sector will be available to help the community sector to administer the schemes more than ever before’.

 

The issue was also raised in the course of a topical debate (Dail Eireann, Debates, 30th January 2013, 410-412).  Michael McNamara (Lab, Clare) referred to the proposal for socio-economic committees which, he said, would effectively replace the local development companies.  People were concerned that local development would be emasculated and brought under the control of the county managers.  Tommy Broughan (ind, Dublin NE) spoke of the fear that 25 years would be swept away by the minister’s proposal to transfer core funding from development companies to new socio-economic committees.  He told of the remarkable record of the Northside Partnership and its profound impact on education and helping unemployed people.  He gave figures for the work of Fingal LEADER in helping people into education and training.    It would be a pity if all this were to be lost in a morass of bureaucratic dead-hand development.  

 

 

15% – 30% on administration 

Replying, the minister, Phil Hogan spoke of the considerable administrative burden of the current local development model, with some companies spending 15% on administration and others 30%.  There was a potential for duplication and overlap on the local development landscape, many different funding and reporting arrangements, the demands and hidden costs associated with the requirements of various stakeholders to participate in multiple boards and structures at local level.  Local development companies will be key players in the new structures and a key partner in the socio-economic committees and would continue to implement programmes on the ground using the bottom-up approach, but ‘none of us should expect autonomy.  Our citizens want to know where their hard-earned money goes and they want a say in how it is spent’.

 

Michael McNamara quoted the European Court of Auditors to show that local development programmes run by local authorities in other member states had performed poorly.  Whilst he was pleased to hear that the minister proposed to give local development companies an important role, there was a fear that they would have just a token representation of one member on the board. The question was whether it would be effectively under the power of the county manager.  Tommy Broughan spoke of how although there were some excellent local authority officials, others acted as a roadblock to development.  Will the staff of LEADER programmes be transferred to the local authority later this year when their contracts expire?  There was a fear that their spark of initiative will be extinguished by the minister’s hand.  The minister:

 

              ‘I have no intention of transferring a total of 1,968 staff to local authorities.  I have no intention of doing that.’

 

Local government would have an overall responsibility, not a dead hand.  Local authorities will have a central role in the oversight and planning of local and community development programming. The alignment group had recommended that the bottom-up approach should be embedded as an integral part of planning and decision-making and he supported that.  He had met the Irish Local Development Network and agreed eight out of nine agenda items, so a lot of progress had been made.  Unnecessary fears or misunderstandings may have been motivated by others.  All indications were that the next level of funding would be lower, but money for the new structure would be ring-fenced for community-led development, rural or urban.  The community-led approach was alive and well, he assured him.