Friday, June 7, 2013

NEWS FEATURE: Community reps negotiate with officials


- Talks continue over small but significant detail of reform plans

Allen Meagher reports:

Talks are continuing between Government officials and representatives from the Irish Local Development Network (ILDN) the representative body for the country’s Local Development Companies (LDCs).

Talks are continuing between Government officials and representatives from the Irish Local Development Network (ILDN) the representative body for the country’s Local Development Companies (LDCs).
All 50 companies are involved in delivering the €48.7m Local and Community Development Programme, while 35 of them (in rural areas) deliver the substantially bigger part-EU-funded LEADER programme.
The discussions are taking place following sign-off by the Government last October on reforms outlined in ‘Putting People First’ which seeks “to place local government at the heart of local economic, social and community development.”
Agreement has been reached on eight out of nine reforms, but LDCs remain in talks with officials over a contentious “alignment” proposal that would see new Socio-Economic Committees (SECs) take the lead role in local and community development.
Government officials point out that local authorities are being reformed in tandem with the planned changes and argue that alignment marks an advance in terms of democratisation.
LDCs view it as “a takeover” and believe it is a step too far.
The talks take place in the context of the Final Alignment Report’s statement that, “The approach and ethos of the local development companies, based on community involvement, and interventions tailored to address particular local needs, are fundamental elements of the local development model in Ireland.  Considerable care should be taken to maintain the integrity of this model.”
The report proposes that we should “build upon the strengths and experiences of both the local government and local development systems” while acknowledging that neither approach is perfect: “There is considerable variation in approach, skills and standards of service delivery across both local authorities and local development companies.”
Those involved in the “alignment” negotiations are the ILDN, Pobal, the City and County Managers Association and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
The Minister wants stakeholders to look at the wide reform picture being presenting, to look at the long-term outcomes promised, and he pointed out that all other EU countries “have a structure in place which is a partnership between local government and the community.”
Said Minister Hogan: “Local communities will continue to be involved in a bottom-up approach to local development, in conjunction with local authorities. The local development model is to be retained and Local Development Companies will continue to have a delivery role.”
The wider local government reforms promise to strengthen local democracy, “lessen duplication” and save money. The number of councillors will be reduced, many smaller councils will be merged or replaced as new municipal bodies are set up (outside Dublin only) and the reformed local authorities promise greater citizen participation.
Government officials point out that the EU bodies have also been critical of elements of Ireland’s current approach to local development and that OECD support can be cited to support the case for reform.

OPPONENTS

Opponents object to “a takeover” by local authorities, saying if anything alignment will reduce local democracy, erode community-led local development, destroy the autonomy of LDCs and is contrary to best practice internationally.
“None of us should expect autonomy,” Minister Hogan told the Dail.
The ILDN cites support from Brussels. As 150 TDs and Senators who attended an ILDN briefing were told in January, the EU “strongly endorses Ireland’s Community-Led Local Development approach” as it currently exists.
Objections have been raised by academics, community workers, some local authorities themselves and members of the public:
Hundreds of people have attended public protest meetings. In Mayo, for example, over 500 people attending a meeting in Castlebar and 500 more people attended a similar protest in Westport.
A group of 21 academics signed a letter of protest and County Councils in Kerry, Leitrim and Clare passed motions voicing their opposition (while Wexford County Council refused to back a similar motion).
The Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association says it does not believe that LEADER should be subsumed into the local authority system” while the Irish Farmers Association is also opposed.
The Community Workers’ Co-operative (CWC) welcomed local government reform, but stressed that the Community Sector had to remain independent and echoed concerns shared by other commentators that too much control still rests with city/county managers.
It was proposed at a conference held in Maynooth in November that the CWC should have a seat on the Alignment Working Group but this did not come to pass.
Meanwhile, the ILDN is engaged with the group. The network’s three representatives are Shay Riordan, Anna Lee, and Michael Ludlow, from Limerick, Dublin and Meath respectively. Ten local authority areas have been chosen to run pilot Socio-Economic Committees, on agreement being reached.
We’re not pushing an open door on this but I believe there is room for a good compromise outcome,” commented Doirin Graham, CEO of Clare Local Development Company. “It’s still all to play for and we can still get a good outcome in terms of our autonomy.”
Separately, the ILDN on behalf of its members has proposed that they partner with the Government in applying for the next round of European Structural and Investment Funds, which includes LEADER, for 2014-2020.



AND WORDS MATTER!


The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has established an “Alignment Implementation Group” that draws on representatives from “local government, local development and other relevant actors, to advise the Department on implementation of the Alignment recommendations.”

The group’s name changed once representatives from the Irish Local Development Network came on board and successfully argued they felt more comfortable being part of a “Working Group” than an “Implementation Group”.
The group is now known as the Alignment Working Group.

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