Céisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Local Development.

Bertie Ahern


3 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach the current position on the work of the interdepartmental policy committee on local development. [19419/96]

The Interdepartmental Committee on Local Development continues to meet on a monthly basis to co-ordinate policy in relation to the local development programme across departmental areas of responsibility. It considers progress on the implementation of the local development programme, identifies cross-departmental issues and agrees how they should be progressed, or in the case of those which require attention by Government, prepares recommendations to address the issues raised. The committee is primarily concerned at present with considering the issue of complementarity between programmes; the implications of the recent OECD report on local development in Ireland; and the European dimension of local development.

It is expected that the forthcoming Conference on Local Development will play a key role in encouraging the local development process nationally and internationally and identifying issues requiring further evaluation.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I have waited a long time to ask this question, through no fault of the Minister. The Taoiseach, who arranges these questions, continues to put them for answer by the Minister of State to the end. What priorities has the Minister in terms of local development? How does he envisage the various schemes and subheads in Departments helping local development? Will he outline the strategy that should be followed? I think everybody agrees that local development is welcome if operated efficiently. At present a person wishing to organise a project would need to take a month off to go to the various agencies to find out the position. The Minister spoke about this issue previously and perhaps he will outline what can be done to make progress in this regard.

I thank Deputy Ahern for his support for the concept of local development. This is a programme I inherited in that the pilot schemes were in place. The programme has been extended to 38 partnerships in 35 areas — some areas are so large they need two partnerships. Most partnerships are up and running and their plans have been assessed. An allocation of £65 million has been made to local development partnership companies and that money will be spent in an integrated way in supplementary education, training, environmental improvements, estate management training for tenants and assisting employment, particularly in small, one to five person enterprises. My first objective was to get the partnerships up and running.

The Deputy may have seen a supplement in today'sIrish Independent, produced with the assistance of the European Commission, on a conference on local development to be held in Dublin on Monday and Tuesday next, which will be addressed by the Taoiseach and President Santer, President of the European Commission. This is part of a strategy to ensure Ireland takes its place in Europe as the leading state in the area of local development. It is my ambition that in tackling disadvantage in communities local development partnership companies will become what the credit union movement is to finance in that they will not replace the IDA but will have a niche role. We must make people aware of local development.

The Goodbody group has been appointed to evaluate the mid-term progress of the three sub-programmes, county enterprise boards, local development partnerships and urban village renewal, and it will report shortly. As a result of that report we will be able to evaluate progress in terms of the objectives and assess performance efficiency, where there is an adequate link and if there is overlap. We will then be in a position to move to the next stage. Most of this year has been spent getting the partnership companies up and running. This is a very exciting development and I very much appreciate Deputy Ahern's support for it — there is one such partnership in his constituency.

I would like to see rationalisation so that all schemes and funds are properly utilised. In review of this matter I would like the Minister to take into account one aspect. It seems as if everybody has a very active role in enterprise boards except elected politicians, particularly Members of this House. Since politicians were involved in the old schemes will the Minister ensure that elected representatives who have a mandate to improve local development are central to ongoing developments? It makes no sense that everybody except elected representatives should be involved in the distribution of funds, whether from Brussels or the Exchequer. Elected representatives are accountable for these issues and they should be central to the co-ordination of the schemes in future.

Deputy Ahern raised an important point, a concern which has exercised my mind. When I came to office I appointed councillors to the county strategy groups which co-ordinate programmes. Consultation is taking place between the Minister for the Environment and myself to see how we can best complement the role of elected representative democracy. I want to try to close the gap to which Deputy Ahern referred without dampening the spirit of those involved in the partnership companies or taking from their remit. I meet the chairman and managers of the partnership companies about three times a year and on my last meeting with them I addressed this issue and asked for their ideas -I have also asked from time to time for the ideas of local elected representatives. In the meantime I have asked all partnership companies to communicate with local public representatives, councillors and TDs, so that they are fully informed about what partnerships are doing.

Consulted, not informed.

This system is 100 per cent funded either by the Exchequer or the European Union. The present void was probably not recognised in the beginning. It needs to be addressed and I am considering that matter.

While we are all very much in favour of local development and recognise the benefits of the bottom-up approach, will the Minister agree there is a plethora of bodies? For example, in Donegal there are county enterprise boards, a Leader board for the islands, Údarás na Gaeltachta, local enterprise boards and so on, with the result that people have difficulty in identifying the correct body to approach for a particular project. Does the Minister agree that if these bodies are not to be amalgamated, there should be more co-operation between them? I know that an effort was made to have more co-operation between the ADMs and the Leader boards. How successful has that been and what has been the uptake? Have there been any amalgamations? Are they co-operating with each other?

I have addressed this point and will address it further when I have the report from Goodbody's and from the monitoring committee.

When will that be?

I do not have a date but I will communicate with the Deputy and give him some idea of the timescale. I invited Leader companies to take on the role of partnership companies where they were prepared to do this. It required a small amendment to the representation on their board. A number of Leader companies took up this offer but many did not. There is room for looking at the issue of overlap.

County enterprise boards support the development of small business. Whatever the sector and whatever the status of the promoter, their objective is to increase the start up and survival rate of small businesses. Local development companies are primarily concerned with tackling unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, and finding opportunities for the unemployed as promoters or potential employees. They are concerned with a ground-up approach. They have different objectives but they are complementary. I do not want to see them amalgamated but I want to see unnecessary overlap removed.

We are all in favour of local development. My worry is about the overlapping of such projects and agencies. The Minister of State spoke of chairing an interdepartmental committee. How does he deal with Departments which do not want to relinquish control over county enterprise boards? Does he have ministerial permission to give orders to sections of other Departments, or does he hope that they will deal with him in a non-combative way? My experience is that what Departments have they hold and will not relinquish.

There is an overlapping and an oversupply of agencies and of people and projects, but the end result is often that the applicant who is supposed to benefit does not. He or she is bemused and puzzled by the range of agencies and conduits which must be gone through to get aid. Does the Minister of State have permission to give the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, orders about county enterprise boards?

It is wrong to say local development is not successful. A sum of £330 million is being spent, one third on county enterprise boards, one third on village renewal and one third on partnership companies. We have heard from people who were in Dublin West during the by-election campaign who for the first time appear to understand what happens in Deputy Ahern's constituency and my constituency every day of the week. We are very much aware of it.

Nobody but the partnership companies is trying to tackle the real problems that those communities face, and I resent and reject any suggestion that they are not doing a good job. They are doing an excellent job. When I arranged a briefing for Members of the Oireachtas, because I have heard this sort of nonsense across the floor before, only a handful of people turned up. I have inherited and refined this partnership programme. Not only is it good, it is probably one of the best in Europe and it is one of the few programmes doing anything to tackle the real problems that people are facing in the poorest communities.

Ministers do not need to order anybody about. The interdepartmental committee is chaired by an Assistant Secretary in my Department. I have specific responsibility for local development and overall responsibility for co-ordinating the three sub-programmes, that is, the co-ordination of the programme. That is done at the Department of the Taoiseach where the various Departments and agencies attend the interdepartmental committee at which it is a function of the Department of the Taoiseach to co-ordinate. That is one of the roles of the Department of the Taoiseach and it is done quite well.

The interdepartmental committee will receive Goodbody's report on the mid-term review and we will take whatever critical evaluation they make into account and refine our approach to local development accordingly. We will not do it on the basis of throwaway statements which do not stand up to evaluation and which are grossly unfair to people who are working very hard to give a cost effective service to the communities in greatest need.

I do not know why the Minister is so excited. I thought the Minister of State chaired this interdepartmental committee, as did everyone on this side of the House. That is quite a surprise. The Minister should chair it as it needs a political, rather than an administrative, hand on it. We all agree that local development is very valuable. The Minister of State can puff and pant all he wants to. We all agree that he is a wonderful person——

I beg to disagree.

——doing absolutely wonderful work, particularly in his own constituency——

We are coming to that. Do not be premature.

——where he directs the grants best suited to himself. I am fully in agreement with the principle of local development. However, we should ask whether there are so many people engrossed in developing local development that we forget that those who are supposed to benefit do not always benefit. I have found that a growing number of bureaucratic elites run these projects and ringfence themselves into the projects. They are not there to the service of the disadvantaged person who needs it.

There is a tendency towards debate. It is fair to say that the progress at Question Time today has been particularly sluggish.

The Minister is sluggish.

Three questions in almost 40 minutes is not good enough. We will be proceeding to deal with priority questions at 3.15 p.m. Let us try to make more progress.