Funding for the scheme has been reduced as much as 50% in some areas, and they say it will be 2017 before any money from the 2014-20 scheme is paid out in several regions.
LEADER aims for community-led economic development, enterprise development and job creation, social inclusion, and environmental protection.
But the new scheme is crippled by extra bureaucracy and by duplication, said witnesses at the recent Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht debate on Sustaining Viable Rural Communities.
South Kerry Development Partnership Limited chief executive officer Noel Spillane told the Committee cuts to LEADER and community development are disabling the capacity of the community and voluntary sector.
“As an example, in the previous round of LEADER funding between 2007 and 2013, during the worst economic crisis in the history of the State, the final spend on the programme was approximately €370 million nationally. The budget allocation in the current round of LEADER funding is between €220m and €250m, a reduction of 40%.”
“In Co Kerry, the budget reduction is greater than 50%.”
He said the current structure of LEADER is such that it can take between six to eight months for a project to be approved, from the point of expression of interest to the issuing of a contract for funding.
“In my view, it is ridiculous that a small community group or a small enterprise in a rural area looking for funding has to wait between six and eight months for a decision in that regard.”
He said there is potential for duplication, with the town and village renewal scheme delivered both by local authorities and in a LEADER rural towns scheme.
Mr Spillane said additional requirements over and above what was in the previous round of LEADER require him to hire at least one full-time equivalent staff member just to deal with the extra administration. “This is one full-time person dealing with bureaucracy who could otherwise be working on the ground.”
Tomás Beades of Roscommon LEADER Partnership told the committee, playgrounds can be funded under five different funds.
He said bureaucracy “has gone mad” in the new LEADER scheme.
“The amount of extra paperwork involved in doing a return is madness.”
Sinn Féin Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, who worked as a manager of a partnership company in Connemara, said there has been a smash and grab by county managers on the LEADER funds.
“Although the local authorities hide behind a committee, they are in control of the funding and dictate where money will be spent.
“It saves the local authorities money on projects they should have been spending money on but which they cut back on.”
“Our LEADER model was lauded as the best in Europe, but we have turned it upside down and probably turned it into one of the worst.”
Sinn Féin Senator Rose Conway-Walsh said, “We have succeeded in creating a bureaucratic nightmare in the delivery of LEADER, when we had an excellent programme.
“The purpose of LEADER was about building capacity and independent and single-minded communities. It is designed now to bring it in under the political system, create a dependency and have political interference in the decisions being made, and that is grossly wrong.”
The committee was also addressed by West Cork Development Partnership (WCDP) chairman John O’Brien and chief executive officer Ian Dempsey.
Their company, and Galway Rural Development Company, were not successful in the process to select LEADER local action groups.
Mr O’Brien warned that LEADER is dying. He has been involved in the WCDP since 1991.
“We have been lauded throughout Europe and worldwide as a successful deliverer of the LEADER programme. Can I say with bitter experience that we will now be delivering a LEADER programme in Georgia and Russia, but we are no longer doing so in West Cork.”