I expect the European Commission to finalise the guidelines for the new rural development initiative, Leader+, very shortly following on the recent receipt of the observations of the European Parliament. Further consultation is taking place this week with member states and this should open the way to early approval of the guidelines.
Based on these guidelines, member states will then draw up operational programmes for Leader+ for forwarding to the Commission for approval with a view to commencement of the Leader+ programme as soon as possible. In addition, a Leader mainstream programme is being funded under the national development plan. As with other measures provided for in the national development plan, approval by the European Commission is necessary to enable commencement of arrangements for the establishment of Leader mainstream activity.
Pending EU clearance for Leader+ activity and Leader mainstream activity under the NDP, it is not possible to define the precise arrangements for delivery. It is clear, however, that the Commission's intention is that funding will be confined to a limited number of rural areas and that the essential aim of the Leader+ measure will be to encourage the emergence and testing of new approaches to integrated and sustainable development.
The report of the Task Force on the Integration of Local Government and Local Development Systems requires that attention be given to avoiding overlap between agencies including Leader groups and to explore mechanisms capable of combining rural development and rural partnership activities in rural disadvantaged areas specifically. I recognise the importance of continuity in the delivery of Leader+ and Leader-type rural development programmes. Every effort will be made to establish the earliest implementation of the two new Leader measures. In this context, it may be possible to progress the mainstream Leader measure which will apply nationwide at a more rapid rate than Leader+ will allow and I am examining this possibility. In the meantime, I have allocated funding to Comhar Leader inter alia to ensure that existing groups are fully fam iliar with the administrative requirements regarding mandatory financial reporting of the conclusion of Leader II projects.