Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 11 Mar 1999

Vol. 158 No. 13

Adjournment Matter. - County Partnership Boards.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Flood, to the House. The last occasion on which we met in a formal setting was in my home town of Drumshanbo, County Leitrim. The Minister was there in regard to his brief on the activities of area partnership boards. As a result of an initiative the Minister introduced to ensure the widest possible representation at local level, I was nominated by Leitrim County Council as one of two councillors to sit on the board of the County Leitrim Area Partnership. Arising from the privilege, I have had occasion to attend two of its meetings since my appointment. While I was always aware of the activities of the area partnership board and its target groups – mainly because the headquarters of the County Leitrim board are located in Drumshanbo – it was not until I was appointed to the board that I became aware of the valuable and compassionate work it does in the community. It is easy for people not associated with this concept to criticise the structures and to ignore the real stories behind what these boards do.

Earlier this week I was at a workshop attended by members of the board who were representative of all the county and the various strands in it, including the social partners and staff members. We were fortunate to have with us Chris Curtin, a well known lecturer in the National University of Ireland, Galway, who has provided stimulating debate on rural poverty and deprivation and has presented a number of papers in this regard. Mr. Curtin acted as facilitator of the meeting, the subject of which was the future of area partnership boards and specifically the future of the County Leitrim area partnership board, given its Border county setting. As a result of that initial stimulating debate I felt it was timely to table this motion to permit the Minister to outline his thoughts at this preliminary stage, on the future of the area partnership boards post 1999, with specific reference to the County Leitrim board.

As the Minister is aware, funding has only been guaranteed for these boards up to the end of this year with the possibility of a roll over into 2000, as is normal with the ending of operational programmes. Naturally there is great concern among the staff as to their future post 1999. There is equally great concern about what will happen the programmes which have been created over the past three years and the marvellous work carried out by the staff in conjunction with the board in helping the target groups.

The target groups are the socially and economically disadvantaged. An example is a separated mother with three or four children who finds herself economically disadvantaged in a rural part of County Leitrim and who has nobody else to turn to to help her pick up the pieces of her life. The area partnership board has stepped in in this case. Another example is a student who comes from a family which does not have financial resources to facilitate her attending a third level institution in the North. Because she is not eligible for normal grant aid the area partnership board came to her rescue. Yet another example is the unemployed man who in his mid 40s after several years or decades of work experience is made redundant with very little prospect of finding work again. The more enterprising who find themselves in such a position will attempt to initiate their own programmes but banks will not be that anxious to finance somebody with a good idea and few resources and this is where the area partnership board comes to the rescue. These are but three examples of the work of the area partnership board.

I know the Minister is committed to ensuring the concept will continue beyond the millennium but I am anxious to establish his thinking on how the concept will be continued. I am not necessarily concerned about the structures. I am concerned about the young staff who have developed unique skills and expertise over the past three years, admittedly on an ad hoc basis, learning as they went along, but who now have a valuable fund of knowledge at their disposal on the brink of a new millennium and who are anxious and willing to continue to help those less fortunate then themselves. Most importantly I am concerned in the context of Leitrim being a Border county with a community which everybody accepts and acknowledges is among the most socially and economically deprived in the country. It is in this context that I am anxious to hear what the Minister has to say.

The Senator will be aware that the Government is in the process of preparing a national development plan for the period 2000-06. My Department has made its submission to the Department of Finance, setting out our priority requirements for funding for the next seven year period. In terms of its submission for funding under the national development plan, my Department recognises the role of area based strategies in tackling disadvantage and has framed its case for funding on that basis.

Given the current stage in the negotiation process for Structural Funds, it is not possible at this time to accurately estimate the exact contents of the national development plan or the amount of funds which will be available in the period 2000-06, either nationally or to any particular organisation. However, the Government has already made it very clear that tackling social disadvantage will be a priority in the next national development plan. Nonetheless, it is no secret that we are faced with difficult negotiations about the nature and amount of new Structural Funds. We should not be under any illusion about the challenges confronting us. These are tough negotiations. They are probably the most difficult Structural Funds negotiations we have ever faced. We do not know yet what the precise outcome will be but we are certainly facing a significant cut in EU funding and increasing contributions to the EU budget.

With a smaller pot of EU funds, every programme and measure which is currently funded by Structural Funds will come under careful scrutiny. If we have less money, then we will have to use what we get more efficiently. That is obvious. Any discussion on the future of EU funded programmes cannot afford to ignore that point. This is a difficult scenario within which to plan, but it is the scenario which confronts all of us, public or private, voluntary or statutory.

Given the uncertain scenario about future Structural Funds, the Senator will appreciate that it is difficult to make precise commitments about specific programmes or organisations which are currently funded by Structural Funds. In talking about any type of EU funded local development organisation or programme, it is worth keeping these realities in mind.

The Senator asked about the future of area based partnerships. Area based partnerships are local expressions of the overall national partnership. The Government recognises that partnerships have proved their strength in getting area based initiatives off the ground and up and running. They often play a pivotal role in the initial stages of new projects. Throughout the country, partnerships have developed successful area based projects. Some of these projects address national needs and have been developed and replicated nationally. The local employment service and the area allowance enterprise schemes are examples. It is in everybody's interest to consider how those pilot projects which have proven successful at local level, particularly those which can be replicated at national level, can be incorporated into the policies and programmes of the relevant mainstream agencies.

In essence, partnerships pave the way in sowing the seeds and putting down roots, but if proven initiatives are to properly flourish and grow, they may need the greater resources and sustainable support which mainstream agencies can provide. That is something we will have to look at in the context of post-1999 planning.

For purposes of this debate it is useful to ask ourselves what partnerships should do where there is increased pressure for the most efficient allocation of reduced national resources. How could their activities be continued? What activities would be continued? What would the priorities be? Asking ourselves these questions forces us to ask what is the most beneficial role of partnerships. Are they meant to be service delivery organisations or are they meant to be catalysts for using local energies to solve local problems, for co-ordinating the flow of resources and programmes in local areas, for piloting innovative approaches? Many think it is in these latter areas that the core role of partnerships lies. If partnerships become overly involved with service delivery, we have to ask ourselves if that overshadows the core role. Does it let mainstream agencies off the hook and mean that valuable lessons learned locally will not be incorporated into the mainstream? This is something to be considered in the context of developing our area based strategies to combating disadvantage for the post-1999 era.

In making its bid for funding in the context of the national development plan, my Department has consulted people directly involved in communities and voluntary organisations and with the partnerships to strengthen the case for adequate funding levels. The House will realise that it is not possible to go into any details at the moment but my Department recognises the fundamental role of area based strategies in tackling disadvantage and has framed its approach on that basis. I feel this approach is also in line with emerging EU Commission thinking on the use of future Structural Funds.

There are issues other than funding which will affect the future of area-based partnerships. Chief of these is the implementation of the report of the Task Force on the Integration of the Local Government and Local Development Systems, of which I was a member, and which was chaired by my colleague the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey. That report provides for the drawing up of a city-county strategy for economic, social and cultural development which is required, among other things, to address issues of disadvantage. That strategy will provide a way to link the overall planning and development of the cities and counties, with specific plans to tackle the problems of disadvantage.

The strategy will be drawn up by a county-city development board which will be broad based and include representatives of area partnerships. It is the ultimate intention that all the plans of the individual organisations involved in drawing up the strategy will dovetail with the strategy.

The task force does have implications for area partnerships in rural areas. It was the feeling of the task force, and is also the view of my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food, that area-based partnerships and Leader groups in rural counties should combine forces. In some places they already have a common organisation. In others, they do not, but they should now start thinking in that direction.

I thank Senator Mooney for giving me this opportunity to place on the record of the House my personal appreciation for the tremendous work being done by the staff of area based partnerships in so many places, including Leitrim. Time and again, I have been deeply impressed by the great commitment which they have shown and, in particular, a commitment to helping those who are often forgotten by the more affluent majority.

I recognise that, for the staff of area based partnerships and of all other EU-funded local development groups, these are times of uncertainty and change. Until such time as the overall package of funding for Ireland is agreed, we are all constrained by that uncertainty. The Government appreciates the crucial role of partnership at the national level. It also recognises the significant role partnership has played at local level. My Department sees the advantages of area based approaches to tackling disadvantage. EU Commission thinking also seems to be developing in that direction.

It is too early to make specific commitments in relation to organisations or programmes currently funded from EU sources but, at the same time, it is important to emphasise the priority this Government attaches to tackling disadvantage in its current programmes and in the context of the next national development plan.

That is the position on the Government side. On the partnership side, there are some things which could be usefully done. If partnerships have a future they will have it on the basis of a very focused, strategic approach. I know many partnerships may already have this approach, but there is no real future in just delivering an amalgam of ad hoc solutions. The strategic vision will also be required to feed into the new county strategies for economic, social and cultural development. In those rural areas where there are still totally separate partnership and Leader organisations, people should actively consider the need to combine forces. It is very important that partnerships devote some thought to how they might develop a role as influencers of actions by Departments and State agencies in their areas rather than just being deliverers of services.

There is a lot of tough negotiating to be done at home and abroad before we can pin down the details of any post-1999 programmes. In those circumstances, Senator Mooney will appreciate the constraints which operate in relation to making any specific commitments, but I hope I have been able to give more than an inkling of my own hopes and objectives in this area.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply which I hope will be of use to area based partnerships. He referred twice to the need for Leader and area based partnerships to integrate and consider amalgamation. At another time I would be grateful if he would give some indication of how this would be facilitated. We will find turf wars breaking out because of the separate structures involved. There is food for thought in the Minister of State's reply, but he is acting as a facilitator along the lines he has outlined.

I endorse the Minister of State's comments about the staff and pay particular tribute to Mr. Tom Lavin, chief executive of the Leitrim area partnership.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.35 p.m. until 12 noon on Tuesday, 23 March 1999.