Leader companies - Don’t scrap a system that works

Urban dwellers may not be aware of the importance of the EU’s Leader programme to our economy.

For the past 22 years, it has allowed the channelling of investment to thousands of projects in rural Ireland and continues to punch above its weight in terms of the number of jobs it supports.

Part of that success story has been the way it has been administered and managed locally. Launched in 1991 by the then commissioner for agriculture, Ray MacSharry, funding under Leader is administered by not for profit local development companies who distribute grants and other supports to projects within their areas. The approach and success of the programme in Ireland is regarded internationally as a model of best practice and the Irish LDCs are at the forefront of an EU-wide Leader movement constituting more than 2,000 groups in 28 member states. That is all about to change.

Environment Minister Phil Hogan has decided to ‘align’ the LDCs with local authorities under ‘socio-economic committees’ (SECs) . The fear is that these largely voluntary bodies will be eventually subsumed within local authorities, with all the bureaucracy and politicisation that that entails.

Opposition to the Government’s plan is being spearheaded by the Irish Local Development Network, which in the past year supported almost 2,000 enterprises and administered €200m in funding. It contends that the change would cost the Government more than €20m, would put 2,000 jobs at risk and could even jeopardise further EU funding.

A rally of the community voluntary sector in support of the current structure was held outside the Dáil yesterday. Speaking at the rally, Independent MEP Marian Harkin pointed out that the success of the community groups in terms of job creation was at least on a par with the achievements of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland. Claiming that the move will “eliminate genuine community voluntary participation and replace it with jobs for the boys”, she said that one of the abiding strengths of the local community structure was that it did not have friends in high places.

It is hard to disagree with that sentiment, just as it is hard to see any good reason for dismantling a system that has provided jobs in areas that foreign investment rarely touches. It is not as if the local authorities have been clamouring for such a role. They do not want the job, presumably because they recognise that they have neither the experience nor the expertise to match the achievements to date.

Mr Hogan should listen to people like Ian Dempsey, chief executive of West Cork Development Partnership, who warns that if the existing five LDCs in Cork were consolidated into one SEC, it would reduce engagement to a fraction of the current level. He also questioned the effectiveness of strategic planning for programmes being based on local authority boundaries, rather than natural areas of development.

The response to such criticism by the Government has been to initiate a cynical public disinformation campaign through compliant and unquestioning elements within the media, presenting it as a “root and branch review” that will “put people first” and get rid of so-called quangos.

That is a shame — in every sense.


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