Huge opposition to proposed changes to the administration of the LEADER programme which would threaten the future of local developmment companies was mounted in Mayo this week.
‘Putting People First’ is Minister Phil Hogan’s plan to radically change how the LEADER programme will be delivered in the future and includes plans that local authority-led structures should take over the programme. However this will seriously threaten the future of groups such as South West Mayo Development Company (SWMDC ), a community-led, not for profit, local development organisation which provides funding, supports, and training to communities and individuals throughout south and west Mayo.
More than 400 rural dwellers of the south and west Mayo region attended last Monday night’s public meeting hosted by SWMDC in the McWilliam Park Hotel, Claremorris.
“These changes will have far reaching consequences for people and communities hoping to benefit from LEADER support in the future. People are very concerned that the Minister’s plans will needlessly change a successful structure that has worked for over 20 years,” said Michael Biggins, chairman of SWMDC.
SWMDC is adamant that it and other rural development companies should continue to apply for and deliver the next round of LEADER funding.
SWMDC is rejecting Minister Hogan’s proposal that a socio-economic committee under every county council should apply for the next LEADER programme as it feels it will lack the “community involvement, volunteer involvement and customer relationship of trust and equality” that the SWMDC has built up since 1991.
Instead SWMDC is putting forward an alternative, that an enhanced Social and Economic Commission should instead be set up to have an oversight and co-ordination role for all locally available funds and resources, but not to be a programme delivery body.
SWMDC has delivered four successful LEADER programmes, right from the original pilot phase in 1991, which has seen €50 million invested in the local community, supporting 500 jobs.
However the meeting heard that SWMDC is much more than just LEADER . It has a broad rural and community development remit that includes programmes such as the Local and Community Development Programme and related social inclusion programmes, social employment programmes via the Rural Social Scheme, Community Employment, and Tús.
“If you remove LEADER from that the whole pack of cards comes down,” explained Mr Biggins on Monday night.
One of the founding members and former directors of SWMDC, Christy Loftus, said the Minister’s proposals were a “retrograde step”.
SWMDC is a “wonderful, efficient and effective example of democracy at a local level,” he added. He described the founders of the local development company as “visionaries” and cited the Clare Lake/McMahon Park project in Claremorris as a fine example of how LEADER funding can benefit a local community.
Sabina Trench, project officer; Maria McHale, community development officer; and Tom Carolan, RSS/Tús co-ordinator each gave a detailed presentation of the different aspects of the SWMDC.
Dr Brendan O’Keefe of the University of Limerick said SWMDC has a track record because it has a structure that knits everything together. He said it was a “fantastic” organisation that many countries would give their “eye teeth” for. He said decisions about Bohola, Balla, and Claremorris should be taken in these areas and not from the other side of the Red Cow roundabout. He agreed that the model of a social and economic commission is the best way forward to monitor, appraise, and ensure delivery of services and public policy at local level.
Erris has lost out
Ballina TD Dara Calleary said: “I will not support a project about putting people first that takes people out.”
Cllr Rose Conway-Walsh said local development companies must be left autonomous so they can work with people on the ground. She said hundreds of thousands of euros has been lost to the Erris region since Meitheal Forbartha ceased trading. She warned that the same must not happen in south and west Mayo. “We can either make a major mistake here or make things better for the future.”
Marian Harkin MEP said the Irish LEADER model is a model of best practice. “I see this as power grabbing because the local authorities have been divested of their functions. We need to take some of the powers from Merrion Square and bring them back to a local level.”
Representing Fine Gael at the meeting was John O’Mahony TD who said he was there to listen, clarify, and bring back the message of the meeting to Dublin. He stressed that the argument was about the delivery and implementation of the next LEADER programme and about maximising the amount of money that can be delivered to local communities. He admitted that future funding allocations would be reduced but added that currently 20 per cent of funding is spent on administration which would amount to €1m in every €5m granted. He said under Minister Hogan’s proposals local development companies would continue to operate frontline services.
Deputy Michelle Mulherin added that the Minister was looking to find better efficiencies by using local authorities at a time when funding is going to be cut.
The SWMDC chairman replied that they were well used to efficiencies and needed to have the next LEADER contract.
CEO of SWMDC Gerry O’Neill said there were contradictions members were concerned about. He said they did not feel there was a role for local development companies if they were not the contract holders for LEADER in the future. He agreed that change was needed and said the proposed social and economic commission which would have an oversight role is what SWMDC wants.
A second public meeting is planned for Westport next Monday at 8pm in the Castlecourt Hotel.