THE significant show of public support in recent weeks for the county-based local development companies West Limerick Resources and Ballyhoura Development has sent a strong message to the powers that be, in particular the Minister of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan. It was his big idea, after all, to align the likes of Ballyhoura, WLR and others throughout the country with the local authorities in their respective areas.
Of course, Mr Hogan’s agenda of reform also included the merger of certain local authorities, not least our own in Limerick. We cannot speak for the situation in Tipperary or Waterford but in Limerick’s case that move was a progressive and welcome one. However, there are genuine reasons to doubt the wisdom of what is being proposed for the development companies currently funded under the Leader programme.
They have not, of course, pleased everyone in terms of the choices that have made in offering support over the years but that was never going to be a possibility. WLR and Ballyhoura have, however, done splendid work in identifying for financial aid a huge number of projects that have supported the social and economic development of communities throughout the county. Recent testimonies from individuals and organisations who would never have got off the ground without that support tell their own story. In-depth local knowledge – a deep understanding of rural communities and their needs – is not something easily acquired. We very much understand the concerns of those who are worried about local authority officials based a long way from the hearts of these communities taking the place of the LDCs. Of the 50 in existence throughout the country, some are clearly more efficient than others, offering a good return for what is taxpayers’ money. While it may be tempting for Mr Hogan to target savings in terms of the salaries paid to LDC staff, the potential damage to communities caused by an over-centralised decision-making mechanism is reason for alarm.
Furthermore, the general public are not fools. If they had no confidence in WLR or Ballyhoura they would not have turned up to recent public meetings in such impressive numbers. Reports that the fate of the local LDCs are a talking point on the doorsteps as would-be councillors chase votes are not surprising.
When Mr Hogan’s sweeping measures effectively spelled the end of the two local councils as they existed for generations, where was the public protest? When city councillors took to the streets, what kind of support rowed in behind them? Virtually none.
People are right to be worried and assurances should now be provided that our local development agencies will continue to be the organisations that – by and large – adminster the funding programme that has made a difference to many lives and many communities. The pages of this newspaper have been adorned countless times over the past couple of decades with coverage of new community halls and other worthy initiatives funded by the Leader progamme. The cry at the public meetings has been ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
That about sums it up.