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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Pressure on Kelly to reverse LEADER 'alignment' plans

Ronnie Bellew

Published 15/07/2014 | 02:30

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EXIT: Phil Hogan, Ireland’s next European Commissioner, arriving at Leinster House last Wednesday on his last day in office as Minister for the Environment

PRESSURE is growing on the new Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly to reverse plans to transfer control of LEADER funding from local development companies (LDCs) to local authorities.

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More than 2,500 protestors from community groups all over the country staged a protest outside the Dail last Wednesday highlighting their fears that the Government's LEADER proposals will undermine the work and job creation potential of LDCs.

The 'alignment' plan to involve local authorities in the management of the new €250m LEADER programme, was announced by outgoing Environment Minister Phil Hogan last May as part of a drive for "greater efficiencies" within the country's 50 LDCs.

But Mr Hogan's pending departure for Brussels as Ireland's new EU Commissioner has given new momentum to the campaign against the LEADER 'alignment' plans.

Change

"There is still time to change direction on this issue as the European Commission have yet to sign off on any Government proposals on LEADER," Independent MEP Marian Harkin said this week.

"I am in regular contact with the European Commission on this issue and believe that the majority of Irish MEPs will make their views, strongly supporting the current LEADER model, known to the European Commission.

"The way in which LEADER programmes have been administered in Ireland is regarded as best practice by the European Commission and a template for the programme in other EU countries," said Ms Harkin.

"On a cost per job created, LEADER can stand scrutiny with IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland, and this reflects the strong voluntary community involvement and the local knowledge involved in the assessment of projects.

"We hear of the good work being done by the IDA, but jobs created by LEADER at local level have permanence and a return to the State that is unequalled."

The former minister's 'alignment' proposal would see the establishment of Local Action Groups – "comprising representatives of public and private local socio-economic interests" – to administer the LEADER programme.

"It is absolutely critical that greater efficiencies and operational savings are achieved in the delivery of the new programme," said Minister Hogan when announcing the LEADER review last May. He added that the objective was to "minimise administration costs and maximise the funding available to support projects and local communities."

The then Minister announced his review in the same week that his department released figures on LDC administration costs, including chief executive salaries.

Survival

Community development leaders have claimed that giving local authorities more say over rural development spending will make it impossible for LEADER companies to survive and will also compound the many issues that have already left rural communities under siege.

"This is just one of the latest attacks on rural Ireland," said Jack Roche of the Duhallow Development Company at last Wednesday's protest.

"The electorate also spoke loudly at the local and European elections but rural communities still feel they are not being listened to," he said.

Speakers at last week's rally called for the LEADER element of the Rural Development Programme to be transferred from the Department of Environment to the Department of Agriculture.

The 36 rural and 14 urban development groups that currently administer LEADER employ 2,500 people and have processed €500m in funding for projects and services over the past five years alone.

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