Rural policy in Northern Ireland is at a genuine crossroads. This is the conclusion of a report commissioned from Professor Ruth Mcareavey, Newcastle University by Rural Community Network and Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network.
Looking Back to Go Forward: A Review of Rural Development Funding Processes and Delivery sets out to identify what worked well with the LEADER approach, what the delivery challenges have been and what changes need to be made in any future programme.
The report admits that the implementation of community led local development , (CLLD) in the thirty years since the LEADER programme was launched has not been without its shortcomings. These include the legitimacy of actors; problems of participatory governance; masking of inequalities and fault lines (relating to gender, class, status); and asymmetric power relations. Previous research is cited in support of this conclusion.
Nevertheless LEADER has, the report finds, improved local services, nurtured knowledge exchanges and stimulated local groups to engage in a plethora of activities. Through fresh thinking and innovation, LEADER brought pre-development work to areas experiencing marginalisation and economic stagnation. Animation as a tool was vital to the success in this respect.
The end of LEADER, as a result of the UK’s departure from the EU, risks argues the report the loss of expertise and undermining of partnerships built on trusted relationships. Northern Ireland should grasp the opportunity to try something new, building on existing partnerships to support new forms of engagement. Community assets should be used as anchors and the report argues that social partners , with the range of resources they bring, should be better recognised. Failure to capture the amount of voluntary effort is a major gap that should be addressed.
The report points to uncertainty as to how the UK government’s Shared Prosperity Fund will mesh with rural development policies in Northern Ireland, including with the The Rural Needs Act (NI) 2016. The Act was introduced into Northern Ireland to ensure councils, government departments and public authorities give consideration to the needs of people in rural areas when making policy decisions.
The report makes a range of recommendations, grouped broadly under four themes.
- Reinvigorate grassroots involvement by breaking down barriers to participation.
- Balance power relations, which have become too controlled by state organisations.
- Strategic oversight including the recognition of voluntary effort.
- Engage with good practice beyond Northern Ireland.
The Executive Summary and Full Report can be read here: