Rural groups slam Minister's plan for revamped LEADER
GOVERNMENT proposals to give the country's local authorities more control over rural development programmes have been condemned as a political "smash and grab" exercise by local politicians and community development organisations.
Announcing €250m in new funding last week for the LEADER element of the Rural Development Programme (RDP), Environment Minister Phil Hogan said he was pursuing "enhanced alignment" between local government and local development.
"It is absolutely critical that greater efficiencies and operational savings are achieved in the delivery of the new Programme, so that we minimise administration costs and maximise the funding available to support projects and local communities," said Minister Hogan.
The Department's drive for "greater efficiencies" will include a review of the operations of the country's 50 Local Development Companies (LDCs), which have been the focus of criticism following the Department's release of figures on the LDC administration costs, including chief executive salaries.
Published last week, the figures revealed that the LDCs received €50m in state funding in 2013, with €11m of this spent on staff and administration costs.
Chief executive salaries at the LDCs ranged from a low of €48,000 (Comhar na nOilean, Aran Islands) to €102,000 (Carlow County Development Ltd).
The Department's review will involve establishing new Local Action Groups – "comprising representatives of public and private local socio-economic interests" – to administer the LEADER programme.
But local development leaders have claimed that giving local authorities more say over rural development spending could lead to inefficiencies and monies being diverted to local government rather than rural development projects.
Brendan O'Loughlin, CEO of the Offaly Local Development Company, which had a budget of €6.2m, claimed that the minister's agenda was to transfer control of the rural development companies to the local authorities.
He warned that such a move would also transfer the inefficiencies already evident within local government services to efficient rural development companies.
He said that there was already good co-operation between rural development companies and local authorities and added that the pay rates for local development CEOs were modest compared to those in local authorities.
"The pay rates certainly would not be a matter likely to concern the Public Accounts Committee," he said.
Nicholas Cotter, a member of the West Limerick LEADER and managing director of Mid West Forestry, told the Farming Independent that "on no economic, social and enterprise metric could the review be justified. It's a political smash and grab," he claimed.
He pointed out that a recent independent review showed that local authority employment costs were running at 20pc higher than LEADER and local partnership companies.
He also claimed that the potential of local government to create employment was "non- existent.
"If the people of West Limerick were depending on the local authorities to create jobs, they would never have a job. There is no economic logic to this idea. It has taken 20 years to build up the LEADER and rural enterprise concept and the Minister is now is trying to re-invent the wheel'.'
Doirin Graham of Clare Development Company said Minister's Hogan's proposal would render her company unviable by stripping away the funding for rural enterprises.
Meanwhile, Seamus Boland of Irish Rural Link has called on the Government to introduce a White Paper on the future of rural Ireland.
The real issue was not whether Phil Hogan or the Minister for Agriculture controlled the EU and exchequer funding for rural enterprise schemes, but the fact that these budgets were declining, he said.
"The Government should concentrate on maximising EU funding for rural development. This can only be achieved by a co-ordinated approach by all Government departments, including Agriculture, Health, Social Welfare, Education and Environment," added Mr Boland.
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