The Local Government Reform Bill 2013 is nearly through the Oireachtas. It gives effect to ‘Putting People First: Action Programme for Effective Local Government’, published in 2012 by the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government. The changes proposed will give ultimate control over local and community development to local authorities. This has been described as bringing coherence to the sector by the Minister. It has been described as a takeover of civil society and a power-grab by practitioners and academics.
The Bill provides for the establishment of Local Community Development Committees (LCDCs). These are ostensibly independent of the local authority. But, as the Minister recently stated in the Dáil, they are local authority committees, and membership of these LCDCs will be tightly controlled. The LCDCs are supposed to achieve an alignment between local and community development and the work of local authorities. On the surface this may seem practical and difficult to argue against in these times of limited resources. However, for those of us engaged in the community sector this is more about control. There is a danger that the alignment process will bring to an end any independent community development work that remains at local level.
LCDCs are to be responsible for what is done and spent in the fields of local and community development and for the co-ordination, governance, planning and oversight of all publicly funded local and community development work. It is likely that what is left of an independent community sector will have to implement what is decided by the LCDCS. In the future local and community development work will be tendered, opening the way for privatisation of community development. Profit may replace social justice as the driver.
The community sector is that element of civil society that works with and represents the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities. It works to challenge and reduce poverty, social exclusion and inequality. It is a key part of our democracy and provides for a form of participative democracy, giving people opportunities to engage in decisions that affect them. Community development is the approach used by the community sector in its work to bring about positive social change. It is based on participation, collective action and empowerment.
We had built an impressive, if sometimes imperfect, grassroots infrastructure. State-funded programmes, State-funded, supported the work of independent community organisations within disadvantaged area-based communities and within communities such as Travellers and disadvantaged women. Community organisations often find themselves advocating against policy or legislation that will negatively affect their communities or advocating for changes in policy that will have positive impacts on their communities. They must remain outside the control of the state if this crucial advocacy work is to continue.
The 2001 White Paper on a Framework for Supporting Voluntary Activity and for Developing the Relationship between the State and the Community and Voluntary sector had acknowledged this. It stated that “it would be wrong for Government to seek to control and be involved in every aspect of voluntary activity, but there is no doubt that it can provide an enabling framework to help this activity. Where this involves direct supports, a delicate balance must be struck between having a relatively light official involvement and maintaining proper accountability”. This position now appears to have been reversed.
One of the most striking findings of the Community Workers Cooperative (CWC) work on this issue is the dearth of information and consultation with those directly affected by these changes. The CWC, along with other national organisations, is now seeking engagement with those most affected by the changes; an open and transparent selection process to the LCDCs; specific inclusion of those who represent the interests of women, Travellers, migrants and other minority groups, and socially and economically disadvantaged communities within LCDC structures; respect for the community sector/civil society to remain independent and autonomous of the State; and adequate resources to make this a reality. The Local Government Reform Bill will bring decision-making further away from disadvantaged communities. Concerted efforts are required to ensure that, at the very least, the interest of these communities is at the core of the work of the LCDCs.