Tuesday 22 January 2019

Rural Ireland suffocates while State fails to take up EU funding

Better financing of leader programme vital to save rural Ireland, says Jack Roche

As a life long advocate for rural Ireland | am still concerned for its future. Rural lreland has been neglected and forgotten for many years. In the 1950s Father Newman, a priest in Maynooth College who later became Bishop of Limerick, carried out a survey of rural areas after which he predicted; "Ireland may yet be a wealthy nation with its people gathered in five or six large growth centers and the rural countryside sparsely populated by ranch type farmers haunted by the ghosts of dead villages".

Every Government since then has contributed to the fulfillment of this prediction. Yes we had reports and plans and promises and we are still getting them, for example the National Planning Framework, The National Special Strategy, The CEDRA Report, Rural Proofing, The Decentralization of Departments, and a plethora of local reports and plans. Despite this 159 post offices are now being closed, just another blow for small rural villages, who most likely have already lost other services and are struggling to keep small schools viable, with many having lost their last shop. This illustrates the continued problems of rural Ireland and the failure of all these initiatives. We had one initiative which was a success. That was a CLAR programme designed for areas of the country that had lost 50% of its population since the foundation of the state, but it was short lived.

For many years rural people awaited a top down solution to their problems but it never came. The one break they got was the arrival of the LEADER programme from Europe. For the first time the bottom up approach gave them the opportunity to do something for themselves and their communities. They grasped this opportunity, and set up structures that became the envy of Europe, and with a huge voluntary input started to make progress in developing their own areas. Today the efforts of their voluntary work can be seen in almost every community in rural Ireland

The 2007 to 2014 LEADER programme had a budget of €423 million. The 2015 to 2020 programme has a budget of only 250 million, at a time when rural Ireland is crying out for development. In the current LEADER programme the Irish Government made major changes, taking away the management of the programme from the local voluntary groups, who had given such commitment to rural development.

They have given it to LCDCs (local community development companies) set up by the local authorities, which the High Court has nowruled are sub committees of the local authority.

The programme is now bogged down in a bureaucratic black hole with only 24% of the budget committed for the 2015 to 2020 period; and the nationally imposed unnecessary bureaucracy making it almost impossible for local communities to access. All this is an insult to the voluntary community groups throughout rural Ireland who had given such commitment to their communities through the LEADER programme over the last 25 years. They were further insulted, when told that all these changes were at the request of the European Commission, following irregularities in the 2007 to 2014 LEADER programme. I with others have met with senior officials of the European Court Of Auditors, who stated they had not looked for any changes to the rules in Ireland and were quite happy with the running of the programmes here.

We also met senior officials from the European Commission, who clearly stated they had not sought changes to the rules in Ireland, and were happy with the manner the programme had been run, and volunteered that they would be happy to come to Ireland to clarify that they had not sought any changes to the rules, or had no need to do so.

The European Economic and Social Committee in a recent report stated that "Member States should not add additional rules and requirements that undermine simplification. Simplification has to be real, and in line with the rules proposed by the European Commission."

They also state the misuse of power by managing authorities has been identified in some Member States, where there was no dialogue between LEADER actors, and LAGs had no opportunity to participate in discussions as equal partners. The European Economic and Social Committee also warns against the domination of municipalities and the fulfillment of their political agendas, with LEADER resources, Local Action groups have to be guaranteed independence in their work and decision making, without official or unofficial pressure from municipalities"

It is also disappointing that Ireland did not take up the European CLLD (community led local development) programme, which would have given more funding to local communities not alone from LEADER butalso from the Regional Fund, the Social Fund, and the Fisheries and Marine Fund. Twenty Member States have taken up his programme and their voluntary local community groups are delivering it to their communities. I can never understand why Ireland seems so reluctant to take up European programmes which are financed at 65% from Europe with Ireland meeting the other 35%, where most, if not all can be recovered from various taxes

Minister Ring was recently concerned that 19 million euro was spent in administration in the 2015 to 2020 LEADER programme while only 6 million was spent on projects. The 19 million he mentions is for administration and animation and as a result of government mishandling and overloading of the programme with unnecessary bureaucracy scarcely any projects got going from 2015 until 2018. The minister must also understand there is a 25% cap on spending on administration and animation, which must be met by the end of the programme

Some Local Authorities must also accept some responsibility for the decline in rural areas with some of their crazy planning decisions. In my own area of Rockchapel there are at least ten planning permissions being delayed and held up many for frivolous reasons. For example in one case the planning notice had faded due to sunlight, in another case because it was in a flood plain according to some crazy map, while it would be impossible for this site to get flooded. A few years back we made an effort to build houses in the village we had twelve young people who were prepared to build and live in Rockchapel, we identified a site, the County Council land purchase officer agreed a most reasonable price with the land owner. Our every effort appeared to have been blocked by the planners and management of Cork County Council. Little wonder Rockchapel has now lost its post office.

For its survival rural Ireland needs effective and immediate attention. Its problems will not be solved over night, but a start needs to be made immediately.

One of the solutions that could be implemented quickly would be the better financing of the current LEADER programme, with far less bureaucracy. Plans for the 2021 to

2027 LEADER programme should start now to ensure there would be continuity into the next programme.

The administration and management of that programme should be returned to the voluntary community groups who made a success of LEADER over the last twenty five years, and the Irish government should fully implement the CLLD programme.

Such a move would bring back confidence into the local communities. And show that the Government was sincere and committed to rural Ireland