Private Member’s Business – Putting People First

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Putting People First – Action Programme for Effective Local Government aims to institute a system of local government that will drive economic, social and community development, while at the same time representing value for money and representing citizens fairly.

Key changes envisioned include the establishment of Local Community Development Committees and a new role for Local Development Companies as part of these revised arrangements.

With €250 million to be spent between now and 2020, it is imperative that the new structures are fit for purpose and achieve the required results for local communities. I welcome the artisan food schemes which will be operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, but the vast bulk of the expenditure, €235 million of the €250 million, will be spent under the LEADER element of the programme.

The Local Community Development Programme have been at the heart of the delivery of social and economic recovery programmes, including innovative and invaluable social services as well as supports for enterprise and job creation and that programme will continue to be delivered by a partnership between community representatives, local authorities, local development bodies and state agencies.

Local government has been central in delivering local community development programmes. However, in the current economic climate, it is imperative that every arm of government is as streamlined and effective as possible. Recent changes in local government structures saw the number of councillors in the country reduced from 1,627 to 949 and the number of local authorities from 114 to 31. Similarly, in the past five years the number of Partnership and LEADER companies has reduced from almost 100 to 50.

Ongoing evaluations of the various programmes such as the Local Development Social Inclusion Programme and the Community Development Programme resulted in changes which aimed to reduce overhead costs while maximising money available for front-line delivery.

I understand that the past two years have been times of great uncertainty in Partnership Companies across the state. The four-year Local Community Development Programme came to an end in December 2013 and a one-year transitional extension was put in place until the new Social Inclusion Programme gets underway in 2015.

However, the uncertainty that surrounded the future of the Local Community Development Programme and the transitional phase until the Social Inclusion Programme gets underway has caused huge difficulties for local communities seeking to get projects completed under the old plan. In county Galway, community groups in Barnadearg and Ballyglunin found it almost impossible to get information on the prospects of their projects receiving funding and are still experiencing very significant difficulties in terms of accessing information about their applications.
I believe that the experience of community groups in the past two years will put many groups off applying for funding in future and there is a real danger that the communities most in need of help, sometimes also those with least resources at their disposal, will lose out in terms of funding, while the larger community groups, now established on a semi-professional footing, will be better placed to find their way through the maze of bureaucracy that faces groups seeking funding.

I am sure that these issues will be fully discussed in the new Public Participation Networks, but there is a danger that these will turn into talking shops for the most voluble and visible community groups and that the voice of very small communities will be lost in the din.

In my experience, lack of communication with groups who have made applications for funding has been a real problem and a cause of great anxiety for community groups fearful that if their project is not completed by the year end, that it may not fit the parameters of the new programme and they could be left in a very difficult position, with a half-finished project and little prospect of further funding.

The cumbersome nature of the system is another frustration for local groups, especially the delay between the time that the group incurs the expenditure and receiving payment. I know of instances where small community groups were presented with a checklist of over 120 items before a grant could be paid. I understand the need to ensure value for money in the delivery of grants, but there is a tipping point beyond which it becomes too difficult for a small community group to meet the many and varied requirements of the local Partnership company in accessing grants.
I believe that the vision of Putting People First is commendable, but we must ensure that those words are reflected in the everyday operations of the various programmes and that it is local communities and not bureaucratic systems that are paramount in our local development systems.