Thursday, 24 October 2019

Questions (5)

Maureen O'Sullivan


5. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the way in which he plans to progress the report, Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities, to ensure real community development. [43818/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Rural)

How does the Minister intend to progress the report, Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities, to ensure there will be real community development?

In August 2019 I launched Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities: a five-year strategy to support the community and voluntary sector in Ireland. The strategy was co-produced by the Government and the community and voluntary sector through a cross-sectoral group established for that purpose. The strategy sets out 11 high level objectives and associated actions which will empower communities, their representative organisations and the community and voluntary sector to inform and shape responses to their needs. The implementation of the actions will be subject to an annual work planning process as indicated in the strategy. The cross-sectoral group will advise on and support the process and my Department is reviewing its membership to ensure appropriate stakeholder participation during strategy implementation. I envisage the first meeting of the new group taking place in early December.

I will provide funding in 2020 to begin the work of implementation of the report. It will include enhanced supports for the structures which enable community engagement in local decision-making, namely, public participation networks and local community development committees. This is an ambitious strategy which will support partnership and joint effort at all levels and between all stakeholders. While I acknowledge that the delivery of some of the actions will take time, I am fully committed to achieving the objectives of the strategy.

We heard a presentation on community development in the AV room recently by Dr. Patricia Kelleher. She went back over the history of community development, looking at the early stages of the Land League, the Gaelic League and the co-operative movement and the forms of rural and urban community development in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. What we saw then was real community development. Projects were innovative, enterprising and effective because they were from the bottom up. Between 2008 and 2011, we saw funding cuts of between 35% and 40%. By 2009, over 180 community development projects had been dissolved, prompting the title of Dr. Kelleher's report, The Systematic Destruction of the Community Development, Anti-Poverty and Equality Movement (2002-2015). It appears that the new strategy for community development is top-down, consisting of development initiatives taken by statutory agencies and local authorities, sometimes in partnership with local people, but that is not real community development, as the Minister and I know it from the past. My question, therefore, is whether the Minister is confident that his report will bring back the kind of community development that led to real changes in the past.

I do not agree with the Deputy that it is a top-down approach. It is from the bottom up.

I am someone who very much believes in that.

On social enterprise and specifically this strategy, many people have talked about this for 20 years; I am the only Minister who has actually brought it in. Moreover, I put my money where my mouth is. I have allocated some funding this year for the public participation networks, PPNs, and the local community development committees, LCDCs. These people felt most strongly that they were not getting the supports to enable them to be in community organisations, in relation to their role and what they wanted to do. That is why the funding is in place.

Some 14,600 are in the community and PPNs. Many people are involved in the community sector. I am committed to protecting the community sector. As I told the previous Deputy, if we do not have the community sector, we will not have services in urban or rural Ireland because neither the health boards, the councils nor the State will provide. It would not happen for these communities. They will get my support - they have my support - and next year I have put €1.2 million towards the implementation of the strategy, for the PPNs and LCDCs.

Dr. Kelleher made the point that during the 1970s to the 1990s, there were really progressive civil servants who understood what community development was about. Dr. Pauline Conroy gave a critique of the five year strategy. She noted that there were 47 mentions of the word inclusion in the 52 page report. Her main point was that there has been an erosion of trust between the local authorities, the statutory agencies and the people who are working on the ground. It will be very difficult to get back to the 180 community projects which were dissolved. I attended the launch of another report yesterday by All Together in Dignity, ATD, on understanding the hidden dimensions of poverty. What we see there is the loss of those community projects because no one was focusing on the whole idea of poverty. There was also the lack of trust which has arisen over the years since the dissolution of those 180 projects. We need to return to that sense of trust. We are talking about local-based participatory democracy, where people in communities have their say and make decisions. I see statutory agencies and local government coming in and telling communities what is best for them rather than it being the other way around. I hope that the Minister's strategy leads to that but a close eye must be kept on it.

The Deputy's question is fair. The 1960s to the 1980s were different times. Communities now have many difficulties, including health and safety and claims. There are many things which arise. When someone is in charge of or part of a voluntary group or board, he or she has a big responsibility. That is not right, really. There are pressures which come from outside. People in these organisations must be so careful that they are protected, trained and that they know their responsibilities because they could finish up in the High Court or any court because of how society has gone.

I expect the Deputy thinks in a similar way to myself on this so I wish to be clear: I want it from the bottom up. My officials, in fairness to them, have gone out and met community groups on this strategy. They have brought people together, talking and listening to them. We are establishing this group which will be set up by 1 December and its first implementation meeting will be in December. I will ensure that all sections of society will be on the group so that they can speak to the officials who ultimately have the responsibility for budgets. I assure the Deputy that I want this to work from the bottom up, not the top down because the bottom up knows what is going on where the top down sometimes does not.