Members of Longford County Council who will be elected on May 23 next will hold responsibility for the implementation of the Local Government Reform Act 2013.
The implementation of this Act will impact on the work of both Longford County Council and the county’s locally elected representatives, but will these revised structures facilitate meaningful engagement in local decision making by Longford Citizens and Communities?
County Longford Community and Voluntary Forum at their recent AGM expressed concerns about lack of information on upcoming changes and challenges to the administration of services in County Longford.
Pat Kelleher Chairperson outlined some of the concerns. “There are four elements to these reforms, none of which have been addressed by local election candidates or the media in the run up to the election,” he said, adding, “these reforms will significantly impact local government and community development in Longford.”
“Firstly, the county will be divided into three Municipal District and a new Local Community Development Committees (LCDCs) will be introduced. There will be an alignment of EU-funded local development programmes with local government as well as changes to citizen and Community Engagement.”
Public representatives elected on Friday will form part of each of the three Municipal Districts - Longford, Granard and Ballymahon. There will be six councillors elected in each District and members will be able to make decisions on a wide range of issues for their district as well as making decisions that will affect the whole county.
“Granard and Longford town councils will be dissolved and the Municipal District will be formally acknowledged as the first level of governance and democratic representation in the county,”
Ray Hogan Environmental Representative on the Forum stated.
“Many functions of the county council will now be devolved to the Municipal Districts, e.g. local area plans, bye-laws, local charges and programmes of works including roads, housing and amenities. Local issues will be decided at Municipal District - strategic issues at county level and there will be a single county-wide executive. Decisions applicable to the Municipal District will not be submitted at county level for approval and there are genuine concerns that this may lead to lack of consistency.
“What exactly is the role of new Local Community Development Committees (LCDCs) and what about the development of the six year Local Economic and Community Plan? What about the management and oversight of local development programme delivery which was formerly managed and delivered by Longford Community Resources Ltd (LCRL)?”
Public representatives on LCDC will have more power in relation to how funding is spent on local development programmes and supports and will approve the Local Economic and Community Plans that will be developed for each local authority area.
“The alignment of EU-funded Local development programmes with local government will bring new challenges. For more than twenty years local development companies like LCRL - have delivered a range of programmes including EU Funding on behalf of a number of Government Departments,” Louise Lovett, Social Inclusion Representative on the Forum added.
She continued, “As a result of the bottom-up community led approach adopted by local development companies they have built up expertise, local knowledge and local recognition of their work in the communities.
“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 underpinned by voluntary boards. These volunteers on boards of companies like LCRL include people from small local groups throughout the county involved in providing improvements to their local communities like sports facilities, community halls, tidy towns, playgrounds etc. The European Commission has previously endorsed this approach to local development and recommended that this be adopted across other EU funds.”
Challenges for LCRL
The changes arising under alignment, including the establishment of local community development committees, will bring challenges for companies like LCRL and for local community involvement.
It is now proposed that responsibility for the two core funding streams of LCRL, the Rural Development Programme (LEADER) and the Local and Community Development Programme (LCDP), will be transferred to Longford County Council through newly formed Local Community Development Committees.
According to Tess Murphy, Community Development Representative on the Forum, without these two core-funding streams Local Development Companies would find it difficult to survive.
“These core funds help them to deliver a range of other programmes and services to their communities including Youth Services, training and education supports for long term unemployed, Lone Parents and other marginalised groups,” she said.
“The LEADER programme delivered by these Local Development Companies has supported the establishment and upgrading of community halls, community playgrounds, walks, heritage sites etc, and there is uncertainty around the mechanism for delivery of the new LEADER programme. The new Local Community Development Programme will be subject to rules of public procurement and this opens up the possibility of the biggest social inclusion programme being implemented on a commercial/for-profit basis and not as currently delivered by local people for local people.”
Last September, Minister Phil Hogan announced the establishment of a Working Group on Citizen Engagement with Local Government with the aim of making recommendations that provided for more extensive and diverse input by citizens into the decision-making process at local government level and to implement mechanisms that would ensure engagement by our most disadvantaged groups.
The Working Group also endeavoured to identify ways to strengthen and enhance local authority relationships with local groups and sought ways of addressing barriers to participation.
“The Working Group recommends the establishment of Public Participation Networks (PPNs) to enable the public to take an active formal role in the policy making and oversight activities of the Local Authority’s areas of responsibility in each local authority area,” Mr Kelleher confirmed to the Leader.
“There will be three distinct categories of groups under which all voluntary groups in the county must register including Social Inclusion; Community/Voluntary and Environment. All groups and organisations will be required to register as a member of the PPN which will be organised at County level and at Municipal District level. Representation on local authority and other structures will come through the PPN. Critically, the PPN will be the route for citizen engagement, and community representation on the County Longford LCDC.”
Currently County Longford Community & Voluntary Forum (CLCVF) fulfils the role for citizen engagement. It is the representative body for 160 Community and Voluntary Groups in the county and groups include Residents’ Associations & Community Alert, Health & Family Support, Heritage & Environment, Women’s Groups, Men’s Groups, Disability Support Groups, Unemployed Support Group, Youth, Sports & Recreation, Community Development, the elderly & special interest groups.
“It is of utmost importance that the newly strengthened structures at local level meet the requirements of a public demanding better governance and performance,” stressed Mr Kelleher.
He concluded, “It is essential also that they have sustainable and secure funding to undertake increased local responsibility and to account to the local community for the spending of local resources. The citizen’s right to participate fully and to influence the decisions that affect their lives and communities are at the centre of democracy.”