By Ann Irwin.
New legislation and changes to funding arrangements, community development programmes and institutional structures are all sowing confusion and frustration among community organisations. The rhetoric behind these changes has been about bringing coherence to the community sector, avoiding duplication and ensuring value for money. So far the opposite has happened. Bringing about so many changes that are ill-thought-out and insufficiently planned is damaging the work of these community organisations.
A key moment was the signing into law of the Local Government Reform Act 2014 early this year. The subsequent reforms to local government are the source of many of the changes for local community organisations. There are not only too many change processes going on at the same time, but there is also too little information or engagement with the community sector on the issues involved.
Local Community Development Committees, established under the new legislation in each local authority area, will now assume responsibility for co-ordinating community development and local development. This will include managing the funding process for programmes in this field. Advice from the Attorney General has identified a requirement that these Local Community Development Committees be subjected to EU procurement legislation. The reforms will therefore include changes to the funding arrangements for the successor programme to the current Local Community Development Programme, which is the biggest social-inclusion programme in the country.
The funding will no longer be based on a grant-giving arrangement between the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government and implementing organisations such as the Local Development Companies. Local Development Companies and other interested organisations must now tender to deliver the successor programme, the Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme, in their area.
While the response to this successor programmes has so far been quite positive, the concern for local communities is at the prospect of privatisation of the implementation of this and other similar programmes. This potentially introduces a profit motivation into this work. Local authority areas have also been divided up as ‘lots’ for this procurement purpose. As a result competition has been created in a number of areas between organisations that are implementing the current programme. This has led to tensions and fear of redundancies amongst their workers in some areas.
Implementation of the new Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme, with its local focus, fails to take account of the work of national community sector organisations in enabling the current programme to be effective. These include the National Traveller Partnership and the National Collective of Community-Based Women’s Networks, for example, which have worked with local organisations to support them in implementing the current programme. The Department has, so far, failed to develop an alternative model to include the necessary work of these organisations. It is, however, widely accepted that the proposed model for the progreamme, which would see the work come under the auspices of the local authority, is inappropriate.
Alongside this, new institutional structures to facilitate the participation of the community organisations and the voluntary groups in the work of the local authorities are being established. Community and Voluntary Fora that have operated in each local authority area for over a decade are being replaced by Public Participation Networks in each local authority area with little or no consultation with community organisations in many areas.
The new Local Community Development Committees are required to develop a Local Economic and Community Plan. This will require a significant consultation process with communities and representative organisations in their area. At the same time, those engaged in the tendering process for the new Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme are also required to carry out a consultation process. In areas where the LEADER programme is operating there could even be a third set of similar questions being asked.
Recent workshops in Donegal, Mayo and Longford organised by the Community Workers Cooperative confirm that confusion reigns at local level and frustration is growing. It has been suggested by some that these processes are being influenced by a markets-fixated drive to privatise and to control civil society and they are clearly damaging and undermining the capacity of community organisations to focus on issues and to seek equality and inclusion. •