I will begin by thanking the committee for its invitation. We appreciate it.
I will provide some information on South Kerry Development Partnership. We are a community-led local development company. Founded in 1991, we were one of the first area-based partnership companies to be established by the Government under the auspices of the then Programme for Economic and Social Progress, PESP. Our strength is that we work with local communities - we are out on the ground. Our strategies and related actions are developed locally with local ownership and in response to local needs. This bottom-up approach to rural development is a core ethos of the SKDP and guides and informs the development and implementation of all of our actions. We work to promote and assist the development of sustainable and vibrant communities and to improve the quality of life of people living in south Kerry through the provision of social and economic opportunities.
I will give a snapshot of our activity in 2015. We provided advice, guidance and mentoring to more than 300 unemployed individuals interested in self-employment and supported 150 of them in establishing their own enterprises. Through our local employment service, we assisted almost 1,400 unemployed individuals with a range of labour market activation supports and progressed 883 individuals into employment, CE schemes, Tús and further education and training. We supported 857 individuals in accessing the range of services provided by our jobs club service and progressed 106 directly into employment.
We provided enterprise-led training to over 100 enterprises across south Kerry through our Skillnets training network, and we providing well over 3,000 training days and funded almost 700 trainees.
Working through the rural social scheme and Tús, we supported over 250 community projects with valuable labour resources. Utilising community development approaches, targeted supports and interagency collaboration, we have worked with over 400 individuals and 30 community groups from marginalised target groups or disadvantaged areas on a one-to-one basis to promote social inclusion and equality and improve the life chances of those who are marginalised, living in poverty or unemployed. We supported the development and maintenance of important recreational infrastructure through the administration of the walks scheme on the national waymarked ways, the Kerry Way, the Kerry sections of the Beara Way and a number of community looped walks.
In my submission to the committee, I inserted a number of maps to highlight some of the challenges facing south Kerry. The maps cover the percentage change in population, elderly dependency, population density and average farm standard output. The challenges facing south Kerry can be summarised by saying it is a rural peripheral area with a declining population due to outward migration and emigration. It has a weak demographic structure and an older age profile, there is a low population density, economic opportunities are very much confined to tourism and farming, low input and output farming predominates, and there are a number of infrastructural deficits, including in respect of broadband and mobile phone coverage. The area has also seen the loss of a significant number of public services.
In 2013, we teamed up with Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, through Dr. Brendan O'Keeffe, to undertake comprehensive research on rural vibrancy. Why? Writing in the Irish Examiner on 13 August 2015, Professor Cathal O'Donoghue, then head of Teagasc's rural economy and development programme noted that vibrant communities can, with local leadership, do a lot for themselves to make their areas better places to live in. He stated that this vibrancy is a critical building block of rural economic development and that, without it, it will be hard to attract businesses and visitors. In the research, we were very interested to ascertain the views of those at the coalface, the community leaders, the community and voluntary sector and individuals. We examined public service provision. Much of the international literature on rural vibrancy points to a strong link with services. It is necessary to be able to access services.
The findings are interesting and provide a signpost to us all on how we can sustain viable rural communities. The research findings show civil society is increasingly active in the provision of local services, particularly social services. Community and voluntary groups are generally well organised and have increasing levels of skills and the proven ability to deliver projects efficiently and effectively. Investment in community development delivers public goods and needs to be prioritised. The animation, capacity-building and funding provided by South Kerry Development Partnership have been, and are integral to, the development of communities and the promotion of rural vibrancy.
Community groups are under increased pressures as they endeavour to fill gaps caused by centralisation. Such pressures are increasingly unsustainable and have been exacerbated by funding cutbacks, not least the cuts that led to the loss of key personnel from South Kerry Development Partnership. These cuts need to be reversed and the surrounding supports need to be reinstated and strengthened.
The increased bureaucratisation of the way in which publicly funded programmes, including Leader and the social inclusion and community activation programme, operate is perceived by the community and voluntary sector as a barrier to innovation and the attainment of vibrant community development. Programmes need to be administered in a more common-sense manner, with an appropriate balance between the need for public accountability and efficient delivery.
In order to maintain and increase their levels of dynamism and their capacity to "do development and democracy", community and voluntary groups need to become more inclusive and representative of younger people and those who have moved to south Kerry, especially those who have come from Poland, Lithuania and central Europe generally. Public service provision in most of south Kerry falls below the 2002 target levels specified in the national spatial strategy and it is essential that rural service provision be underpinned by specific measures in the forthcoming national planning framework. Areas with the weakest levels of public service provision, most notably Iveragh, need to be prioritised in the safeguarding of existing services and in the rolling out of new services, particularly broadband.
While levels of social capital and socio-cultural vibrancy are high in most communities, voluntary groups and the delivery of local services are under pressure from the contraction of the local economy, particularly outside of Killarney. Thus, there is a need for renewed and ongoing investment in economic diversification, the provision of more public service jobs and the development of the SME sector. Rural communities are the main economic base of the towns, and the development of these towns is best achieved and sustained by rural-urban collaboration and the building up of vibrant rural communities.
How can rural vibrancy and sustainable development be enhanced and better promoted? From our experience and what the research is telling us, we make a number of recommendations. First, there needs to be greater acknowledgment of volunteerism and promotion of community development and active citizenship. Volunteers are the backbone of many communities and perform important service-provision functions and are significant generators of local economic development. That said, they face challenges in filling gaps, particularly as State services are scaled back and reorganised. Meanwhile, the wider economic restructuring of rural territories is limiting their ability to meet some new and emerging challenges. These observations on civil society, as supported by data presented in Dr. Brendan O'Keeffe's report, can also be made in respect of many communes and municipalities in other regions throughout north-western Europe. Community-led development works and local leadership and citizen participation need to be supported and facilitated.
In continental north west Europe, local level bodies, such as French communes, with an average population of 1,700, enjoy constitutional protection and legal guarantees. In Ireland, by contrast, the work of civil society often goes under the radar of the public consciousness and the national media, and policy-makers can be inclined to take volunteers for granted. This needs to change.
We need tailored approaches to local conditions, needs and potential. The Report of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas notes that rural areas are increasingly diverse, and that there are distinct spatial patterns and different capacities evident throughout. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach should not be the way public policy goes. It needs to be tailored for specific geographies. The delineation of municipal districts at sub-county level represents a positive element of the Local Government Reform Act 2014 as it brings local government closer to the citizen, thereby opening the potential for greater transparency and subsidiarity. In the case of south Kerry, however, the south and west municipal district is one of the largest and most diverse in Ireland. It has limited internal public transport services and its boundaries were drawn without due consultation with local citizens.
Rural development is a public good. Several OECD studies and the Report of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas itself present considerable evidence in favour of strategic investments in rural areas. Such investments need to be targeted towards the most vulnerable areas to redress the growing gap between core and peripheral regions and territories. Dr. Brendan O'Keeffe notes the following in his study:
Experiences from Germany, Scandinavia, and indeed the CLÁR initiative in Ireland, point to the merits that can arise from prioritising key strategic investments in peripheral locations, rather than 'waiting' for a trickle-down' effect from urban centres. Specifically, within South Kerry, towns demonstrate a reliance on the purchasing power of those who live in the surrounding rural communities and on the environmental goods, services and economic activities associated with South Kerry's outstanding landscape. Thus, instead of expecting rural South Kerry to benefit from some kind of urban spill-over, it is recommended instead, that initiatives such as REDZ (Rural Economic Development Zones) take a holistic approach that enables parallel investments in both town and countryside.
On promoting public service provision, the international literature on the issue of rural vibrancy demonstrates the link between vibrancy and public service provision. In south Kerry as a whole, the towns and villages offer 75% of the recommended range of services for settlements of their size and this is much lower for more rural parts. While the centralisation and cutback of public services may save the Government in the short term, considerable damage done as a result of inter-regional imbalances, growing income inequality, increased levels of isolation and mental ill health will prove costly in the medium to long term. The vibrancy report outlines the clear message that "now that the economy is beginning to show signs of recovery at national level, service provision must be restored to pre-recession levels, and investment needs to be accelerated so that all communities in South Kerry attain the service provision targets specified for them in the National Spatial Strategy".
With regard to reducing bureaucratic burdens, the report reveals strong support by local communities for South Kerry Development Partnership and the Leader and partnership approaches to development. Given the important role local development companies play in stimulating local economic development and leading community development, these companies should allocated increased funding and given greater autonomy to make decisions about the allocation and distribution of rural and local development funds. Recent local government reforms have limited the autonomy of local development companies and in some instances have resulted in their removal from the delivery of Leader in their areas completely. These decisions need to be reversed. Cuts to Leader and to community development are having a disabling effect on the capacity of the community and voluntary sector and are exacerbating the gap between the core and a growing rural periphery, while also compounding social exclusion.
As an example, in the previous round of Leader funding between 2007 and 2013, during the worst economic crisis in the history of the State, the final spend on the programme was approximately €370 million nationally. The budget allocation in the current round of Leader funding is between €220 million and €250 million, a reduction of 40%. In County Kerry the budget reduction is greater than 50%.
The rural social scheme which has done much to support service delivery in rural communities has not seen an increase in the national allocation of 2,600 places in the past ten years. We are delighted, therefore, that 500 new places were announced in the Budget Statement yesterday.
The south Kerry rural vibrancy report stated:
The work of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, and many of the experts cited in literature reviews demonstrates that the current recession and austerity agenda have had a more adverse effect on rural communities than on most urban areas. The data presented show that rural economic development is integral to the ability of civil society organisations to grow their membership and foster social, knowledge and cultural capital. Therefore, there is a symbiotic relationship between the economic and the social. Investment in the rural economy is necessary for community development, while communities that are socially vibrant and have a high-quality natural environment are more likely to attract and sustain investment and generate prosperity. Therefore, it is recommended that the upcoming Leader programme be delivered in concert with all area-based initiatives, including SICAP, the social inclusion and community activation programme, Tús, the rural social scheme, the national walks scheme, EU LIFE, INTERREG projects and all social inclusion programmes, using community-led approaches, so as to enable south Kerry to capitalise on the complementarity between the dimensions of sustainable development - economic, socio-cultural and environmental.