Merger of local groups deferred by Dempsey


Proposals to merge community development organisations and local authorities, as part of the general reform of local government, have been deferred, according to the Minister for the Environment, Mr Dempsey. He told a conference organised by the Community Workers Co-operative in Galway last week that planning for the new structures, due to come in early next century, would go ahead.

"You will be aware of the proposals in last year's White Paper to reconfigure the county strategy groups as community and enterprise groups under the local authority," Mr Dempsey said. "While movement along these lines is still likely, it has been deferred for the moment pending finalisation of the overall renewal programme."

The CWC has welcomed the decision to postpone the move. According to a spokesman, Mr Chris McInerney, community groups are concerned their current focus on tackling poverty and social exclusion may be lost under the new arrangements. He said more time was needed for full consultation and debate on the proposed changes.

"There remains a huge information deficit, not only on what changes have been recently proposed, but on the very nature of what local government is and does," he said.

"The democratic legitimacy of community organisations, partnership companies etc needs to be accepted and seen as an important `nutritional supplement' to the operation of local representative democracy".

As said by Minister Dempsey, "representative democracy is strengthened if it is informed by participatory democracy and the involvement of local people". Mr McInerney said local authorities should take on "a more proactive role" in tackling social exclusion, as was envisaged for them in the National Anti-Poverty Strategy.

"One way of doing this could be via the creation of local anti-poverty strategies (as suggested in the NAPS) which could be done in conjunction with other relevant State agencies and the community sector," he said.

In his speech to the conference, Mr Dempsey stressed the need to create a more representative and inclusive form of local government. "A specific focus on the disadvantaged and those on the margins of our society must permeate the local government system of the future, particularly in drawing together the various agencies in a more coherent way. The voice of the marginalised must be heard in county and city halls. Their needs, their issues must inform local government policy," he said.

He added that the new structures would be based on power-sharing, a willingness to change and a focus on the wider community.

"Power-sharing is an essential prerequisite for the successful linkage of representative and participative democracy in a renewed and vibrant local government system. Power-sharing means no victories, no takeovers by one side or the other".

Mr Dempsey added: "Renewal calls for a change in how problems are faced and solutions arrived at. It means different ways of doing things and being open to innovative ideas. It requires a shedding of past baggage and an abandonment of any attitude which suggests `we can't or we won't work with them'.["]

The Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Mr Flood, told the conference the involvement of the social partners was "crucial" to a successful reform of local government. Mr Flood's brief includes responsibility for local development.

"A major concern of the area-based strategies is that the gap between the well-educated, securely-employed and affluent majority, on the one hand, and the poorly-educated and unemployed poor may be widening," he said.

"We have to ask ourselves: what is the outcome of self-perpetuating long-term unemployment and disadvantage? I think we know the answer. The outcome is stigmatised, depressed and marginalised communities.

"No society can be at peace with itself in the face of such exclusion. That is why social inclusion must be at the heart of local development policy and also inform the reconstruction of our local democracy."

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