Wednesday, 4 November 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
The work carried out through the LEADER programme and the contribution it makes to the rural Ireland cannot be overemphasised. My county has North Tipperary and South Tipperary Development Company. Together they provide a community-led approach that contributes to the social and economic life of our county. I do not know where we would be without either of them.
Rural Ireland faces challenges all of its own. The LEADER programme aims to address these issues, and it does a brilliant job, but the recent budget let them down. The current LEADER programme for 2014 to 2020 ends on 31 December and it is expected the next LEADER programme will not begin until 2023, leaving a two-year gap. The Irish Local Development Network and the South Tipperary Development Company tell me that this remains unaddressed. Their three central concerns about budget 2021 were that it provided no funding for a new LEADER project in 2021, that no funding had been identified for the delivery and administration of the LEADER programme for 2021, and that no interim national rural development plan had been announced for the period between 2021 to 2023, in line with the commitment in the programme for Government.
A total of €44 million was allocated for LEADER in the budget. However, the Irish Local Development Network and South Tipperary Development Company contend that nearly all of this provides for payment on allocations up to the end of December with no funding for new allocations in 2021. There is concern about the ability to pay staff as no funding has been identified for the delivery and administration of the LEADER programme for 2021.
What happens to the LEADER programme in 2021 and 2022? The programme for Government states that the government will "prioritise a state-led rural development programme to bridge the gap between the wind-up of the existing LEADER programme and the implementation of the new programme". If the Minister argues that the overhang from current programme means there is no need for a new interim programme until later in 2021, he is effectively saying that there is no clear provision for LEADER programme providers or staff engaged in the delivery and administration of the LEADER programme. He may say that as the transitionary phase of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, has not been determined, that prevents him from acting now. However, budget 2021 provides for the delivery of schemes under the Common Agricultural Policy through the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, notwithstanding the absence of EU regulations in this regard.
Will the Minister confirm the delivery of an interim national rural development plan for 2021 to 2023? Will he confirm funding for new projects for 2021, which are critical for the sustainable development of rural areas? Will he outline the shape of the LEADER programme for 2023 and beyond?
I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who is unavailable and sends her apologies. The LEADER programme is an EU-funded programme that has been in operation since 1991. It has supported thousands of community-led projects in Ireland and throughout the EU since it was introduced.
The current LEADER programme 2014-20 will come to an end this year. Under that seven-year programme, €168.7 million was allocated for project approvals to the local action groups, LAGs, that deliver the programme at local level. This was in addition to the programme preparation and administration costs of the LAGs. As of 1 November, 3,530 projects with a value of more than €139 million have been approved for LEADER funding by the LAGs. A further 341 projects requesting more than €21 million in funding are at various stages in the approval process.
Due to delays at EU level, the next LEADER programme will not commence until 2022 at the earliest. The programme for Government includes a commitment to prioritise a State-led programme to bridge the gap between the current LEADER programme and the next. The objective of this transitional programme is to allow locally led rural development projects to continue to be delivered using the LEADER model until the new EU programme commences. The duration of the transitional period at EU level has not yet been agreed. Therefore, we are planning for the transitional programme to run for an initial period of 12 months, with scope to extend it if necessary, to align with the outcome of the discussions at EU level between the Commission and the Parliament.
The total allocation for the LEADER programme next year is €44 million. This allocation will be used to fund existing projects as they come to completion and submit payment claims. It will also fund new projects to be approved under the transitional programme and support the administration costs of the LAGs in closing out the existing programme and delivering the transitional programme.
It is important to recognise that LEADER is a multi-annual programme and that payments in respect of projects that are approved in any given year are generally not drawn down until subsequent years, as the projects are completed. Therefore, costs related to projects under the transitional programme are likely to be met from the provision in the Department's Vote in 2022 and 2023, as well as in 2021. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, hopes to be in a position shortly to announce details of the transitional programme, which will come into effect in 2021.
I know this is not the Minister of State's brief and that he is working off the information provided to him by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, but I would like clarification regarding the €44 million that he indicated was allocated for projects for 2021. The Irish Local Development Network and South Tipperary Development Company contend that nearly all of that €44 million will be used up on projects before the end of this year. In other words, there will not be €44 million available for projects into 2021. Can the Minister of State confirm whether that is the case?
These are times when protecting jobs is a concern for people throughout the country, and local development companies are no different. In many cases, their staff have been with them for years. I know this because I have worked on some of those schemes. Relationships and trust have been built up over many years, but the uncertainties to which I referred are worrying for many staff. Will the Department commit to an administration and animation budget for the 35 local development companies in order to ensure jobs are secured and the LEADER programme overhang from 2020 can be delivered, as well as new projects for rural communities?
I have a number of questions which I ask the Minister of State to pass on to the Minister. Will the Department immediately engage with local development companies to provide clarity on the delivery of an interim national rural development plan for 2021-23 and on the shape of the new LEADER programme for 2023 onwards? Will the Minister commit to funding the 35 local development companies to deliver directly a two-year national rural development programme across rural Ireland, as set out in the programme for Government? Finally, will she confirm funding for new projects under the LEADER programme for 2021 as a critical stimulus for promoting sustainable development in rural areas, including in County Tipperary?
I thank the Deputy again for raising this important issue. I join him in recognising the value of the work LEADER companies and their staff have done over the years. That work has made a huge difference to rural and urban life in our country. The LEADER programme continues to play an important role in the development and enhancement of rural areas by providing critical funding to rural economies and supporting rural communities to continue to develop their own local-led, bottom-up, tailored and place-based approach to development. I compliment the LAGs and implementation partners on their ongoing work in delivering the LEADER programme, helping communities to develop projects and supporting businesses to set up and expand.
The LEADER programme has remained operational throughout the Covid-19 crisis and payments have continued to be made to the LAGs, their implementation partners and project promoters. At the outset of the pandemic, a number of administrative flexibilities were introduced to support them. As I said, the total allocation for the programme next year is €44 million. This allocation will be used to fund existing projects as they come to completion and submit payment claims. It will also fund new projects that are reapproved under the transitional programme and support the administrative costs of LAGs in closing out the existing programme and delivering the transitional programme. The Minister hopes to be in a position shortly to announce the details of this programme, which will come into effect in 2021.
I am happy to convey the Deputy's views and questions on this very important issue to the Minister.