Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Local Development Companies Administration
Unfortunately, Senator Healy Eames is not present. We will proceed with the first matter. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish to raise on the Adjournment the concerns that have been raised with me on the alignment process.
The local development companies have a very strong track record and expertise in the area of programme delivery and have in the past number of decades strengthened local democracy and community engagement and participation. They have successfully delivered a range of programmes on behalf of a number of Departments. I know the Minister will be aware of that. As a result of the bottom-up community-led approach that these local development companies, LDCs, have adopted they have unrivalled expertise in their ranks, local knowledge, local recognition of their work in the communities and they offer value for money in the delivery of the programmes. The community-led local development approach of delivering a broad range of programmes to tackle social exclusion, supporting rural development and job creation and enterprise at local level has been successfully delivered by the LDCs. The European Commission has previously endorsed this approach to local development and recommended that this be adopted across other EU funds.
At this time it is not clear what the future holds or how local development companies will navigate their way into the next funding period. It is essential that clarity is provided so that proper planning can be undertaken to manage changing circumstances and to ensure that these LDCs can make the transition to the next funding period. The Minister established an alignment working group, bringing together representatives of the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, County and City Managers' Association, Pobal and Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government staff to work through proposals as to how the alignment proposals should unfold. Unfortunately the alignment working group, as far as I am aware, has not met since September 2013 and the recent release by the Department of documentation to front-runner local authorities and then to all local authorities without sending them to the ILDN has in its eyes undermined the credibility of the alignment working group process. It has frustrated members of the network. There is great concern on the ground about this. To be frank, the clumsy handling of this has caused a great deal of disarray in the community sector and especially in rural areas. With the changes to the link community development, LCD, programme that are being proposed and the current Leader funding finishing, the timeframe associated with the process is challenging the continuity of delivery of frontline services, and we face challenges if the services are to be maintained.
There is a lack of clarity on the delivery mechanisms and the contractual arrangements between the local community development committees, LCDCs, and local development companies. This has created a lot of uncertainty in my area as is the case in the Cavan-Monaghan Leader joint venture companies Breffni Integrated Limited and Monaghan Integrated Development.
It is on behalf of these groups that I express my concern at the direction of the alignment process, nationally. I am concerned that damage will be done to the delivery of community and local development programmes at a time when demand for these services and initiatives has never been greater. We cannot afford to allow this to happen, especially in rural areas, which need every venture possible in order to boost the economy and keep jobs afloat.
The ILDN wants four issues discussed and perhaps the Minister of State will touch on them today. First, the requirement that LCDCs will hold a tender process for the delivery of successor programmes through the local community development programme. That is very important and is a bone of contention.
Second, the urgent need to provide Leader programme transitional funding for a number of LDCs. Third, the proposal that LDCs will become local action groups in the context of the Leader programme. Fourth, the implications of such a decision for relevant LDCs and the management of communications to the ILDN in the alignment process. These are some of the issues that have arisen. They are important on the ground and community groups are concerned that expertise could be lost should the process not be handled properly.
The approach that the Minister is pursuing, regarding the enhanced alignment between local government and local development, is part of the Government approved local government reforms contained in Putting People First - Action Programme for Effective Local Government. His aim is to bring about greater co-ordination and targeting of scarce resources, reduce duplication and to provide a more efficient and cost effective delivery of local services.
There has been good progress to date, with input from the alignment working group which he established to advise him on the implementation of the alignment recommendations. As part of this process, my Department has had ongoing contact with the Irish Local Development Network, the representative organisation for 50 local partnership companies. There have also been a number of bilateral meetings with the network and the Minister has met them on several occasions and plans to do so again shortly. He wants to emphasise that there has been a substantial amount of engagement with the local partnership companies on the alignment process. The partnership companies are not the only stakeholders and, in that regard, the Minister and his Department have met representatives of the community and voluntary sector who are also important stakeholders.
The changes arising under alignment, including the establishment of local community development committees, will bring challenges for the companies relating to structures and staffing. In the context of achieving better value for money, with continuing constraint on programme budgets and the requirement to undertake a procurement process for the delivery of the local community development programme, it is simply not possible to guarantee a continued high level of funding for all of the bodies involved. These issues are part of the ongoing dialogue with local partnership companies. He recognises, in particular, that the legal advice, to the effect that my Department must procure the delivery of the local community development programme, is a significant change to the previous arrangement which awarded the companies these public contracts without any competitive process. We will manage the programme in line with the legal advice and procurement requirements. I have confidence that, given their expertise and experience, the companies are very well placed to submit robust applications for future delivery of the programme.
The issue of procurement does not have the same implications for the Leader programme which is implemented by 35 of the 50 local development companies. Leader is covered by EU regulations that sets out conditions by which the programme must be implemented and these do not require a competitive tendering process. I see the partnership companies as key partners on the new local community development committees, with a strong implementation role under Leader and very similar to the delivery role that they currently have.
Change processes are challenging for all concerned but change is necessary, both as part of the overall local government reforms and to ensure the optimum use of scarce resources, especially for valuable local development funding. I am confident that if we continue, as we have done in the past 12 months, to work in partnership and engage openly, the result will be a strong and robust local and community development model that will deliver real and sustainable results for citizens and communities.
The Minister of State mentioned the working group and the related process in his speech but the group has not met in five months even though the Department issued documents. As I said, there was a feeling that the move undermined the credibility of the group and the co-operation that existed. He also said that the Minister plans to meet the ILDN shortly. The ILDN has a number of concerns and I urge the meeting to take place as soon as possible.