By Stephen Cadogan – Thursday, February 21, 2013, Irish Examiner, Farming
The Government has set about dismantling and rebuilding considerable portions of its involvement in rural Ireland.
Some disruption seems inevitable, particularly for thousands of people availing of local development services.
And the question must be asked: what will be the benefit? Are existing services in areas such as local development and rural transport so inefficient that they must be re-organised?
Must rural development be taken apart again, just five years after then Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Eamon Ó Cuiv slimmed it down from 100 local development companies to 53?
It was mainly because of that re-arrangement that the EU-funded programme of rural development for the 2007 to 2013 period didn’t get off the ground until late in 2008.
Of course, bailouts and austerity have since entered the picture, and everything is happening against the background of slimming down the public service from its €15bn annual cost in 2010, and a Government whose members had identified 145 quangos for culling.
Already, 9,000 local government staff are gone, and Environment Minister Phil Hogan says local authorities cannot deliver the same level of service “without the support of the community sector”. The government’s plan to empower local government to drive economic development and create jobs, and its ambition to reform supports for small and micro-businesses, also loom in the background.
Minister Hogan says the national spatial strategy of gateways and hubs on which development has been based must be reviewed too — and it will be about one year before conclusions are reached. “Everything is up for review in terms of title and designation,” sums up his approach.
One of his objectives is to maintain front-line services to citizens and direct the bulk of the limited money available to them, rather than to administrative structures. That must be welcomed — but the huge task of re-organising so much bureaucracy could easily leave development work paralysed for a couple of years. Development work has probably already slowed ahead of the re-organisation. The minister admits there are already difficulties in State agencies when they feel something is “slipping away” into local government. “I did not believe there would be such hassle about devolution of responsibility,” he said. “The social partners are getting in on the action as well.”
Planned major staff redeployments will slow the process. Employees of county enterprise boards are to become employees of Enterprise Ireland and be seconded to local authorities.
Minister Hogan says he will replace a structure that gobbles up an enormous amount of administrative costs — easier said than done. He warns that LEADER funds for local development from the EU will be probably less than half of what Ireland got in the last round. He talks about using structures such as local government, to pay for heating, light and offices, while developing a one-stop-shop approach to economic and community development — all laudable, unless the re-organisation gets bogged down.
The minister says many people with good ideas for development do not know where to go, or find bureaucracy at local or national level to be alien to them — but re-organising that system will be a huge challenge.
He puts much of his faith in elected people — because they have “gone through the pain barrier” of eliciting support for values and projects. But even his political colleagues question the ability of locally elected councillors to take responsibility for development — pointing to their track record in decimating town centres by approving big suburban supermarket developments, and questioning their commitment to more peripheral areas. Minister Hogan himself says local authorities need to join the real world by substantially reducing development levies.
Meanwhile, despite its commitment to local government, the Government has handed national responsibility for local and rural transport services to a National Transport Authority, effective from next April.
And the shake-up of local development goes ahead before Minister Hogan’s invite to rural people to make submissions and attend 59 public meetings where their voice is heard in how to shape and develop non-farming economic development up to 2025.
They won’t have a say on the minister’s programme of handing responsibility for rural development to local authorities, which has already started.
Their views will be in the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas draft report, but that is not expected until next September.