Cork boundary resolved but larger issues remain

The row over Cork city’s boundary extension has been torturous, but in the end it looks like a mature attitude and a sound approach has won out, writes Aodh Quinlivan

‘We change our behaviour when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. Consequences give us the pain that motivates us to change’

– Henry Cloud (author).

THE issue of the local authority boundary in Cork has been described as a saga.

As a saga can be defined as a long and involved story, the Cork controversy certainly fits the bill. In fact, the current dispute can be traced back to the 1960s.

The protracted tale of Cork’s last boundary extension began with a sworn public inquiry in May 1961.

It culminated with the coming into force of an extension in July 1965.

In February 1967 the compensation package between the city and council was agreed and the last payment

was received by the county council in 1982.

The more recent version of the great Cork boundary question has been ongoing since at least 2012 when Phil Hogan, then the local government minister, declared, “there would appear to be a good case in principle for considering a boundary alteration in Cork with a view to creating a wider metropolitan area”. In the intervening five years, we have had reports, controversies (some of which were unearthed through freedom of information and reported in the Irish Examiner), misinformation, scare-mongering and pettiness.

This has taken from the important work of both local authorities, a point referenced by Jim Mackinnon at the end of his report — “Cork is not benefiting from the current hiatus. The long-standing question-mark and uncertainty over local government arrangements in Cork has distracted both local authorities from their core mandate. In the meantime, the world is moving on, with new challenges and opportunities presenting themselves.”

While the outside view has been that the boundary battle in Cork is an unholy mess, I remained optimistic over the last few difficult months that reasonable voices in City Hall and County Hall would hold sway and that a compromise agreement would be reached.

As I write, that appears to be the case, as evidenced by the joint statement issued yesterday by Lord Mayor, Cllr Tony Fitzgerald, and County Mayor, Cllr Declan Hurley.

Both are to be commended for the conciliatory and mature nature of what they said — in contrast to much of the hysteria over recent months from people who should know better.

The Lord Mayor referred to the historic opportunity for both Cork City and county to grow and prosper.

Tellingly, the County Mayor noted: “Both councils acknowledged that it was unlikely that they would each achieve all that they individually sought to achieve.

“Today’s developments provide a solid basis to move forward on a joint collaborative basis.”

These words reflect the famous and oft-quoted statement by Otto von Bismarck: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”

The road to get us to this point has been torturous and potholed and many people who set out on the journey are tired, battered and bruised.

Nonetheless, however we got here, we should be encouraged that there is a roadmap. We should also be encouraged that common sense and evidence has won the day in that the deeply flawed proposal to merge the city and county councils has been discredited to such an extent that it will hopefully never see the light of day again.

Professors Peter John and Colin Copus are two of the leading worldwide experts on the size of local government and they have concluded: “Common folklore in local government is that bigger is better and more efficient, a conclusion not borne out by research.”

My own research, conducted with two colleagues in Dublin, examined more than 400 cases worldwide of local government mergers, with the evidence pointing to the fact that in a majority of cases the mergers not only failed to achieve efficiencies but they generated significant diseconomies of scale.

This evidence fell on deaf ears for three members of the original Smiddy Committee and within the corridors of the Custom House where officials clearly had their own agenda.

Today is a day of hope and it is also a day of vindication for UCC’s Prof Dermot Keogh and Theresa Reidy (the two dissenting members of the Smiddy Committee and writers of the minority report) who refused to bow to extreme pressure.

Hopefully, we have seen the end of the snide dismissals of the minority report as an “academic” piece of work.

At times during the recent controversy, an ugly anti-intellectual bias has been evident.

While today I am optimistic, I am also cautious.

It seems that a reasonable compromise has been reached but it is not necessarily optimal.

Frank Crowley, of UCC’s Spatial and Regional Economic Research Centre, argues that the boundary movement should be towards the harbour for more efficient and integrated services and a higher population density.

We also need to demonstrate patience at this point — in many ways, having come off one torturous and potholed road, we are about to start travelling another one.

Over the coming months, we need to see service plans both for the expanded city and the reduced county.

The transfer of administrative functions and other handover issues will take years to complete. There will be difficulties and we will hear hurlers on the ditch say, “the councils should be merged” or “there should not have been a boundary extension”.

I don’t like to end on a sour note but there is a bigger issue here which a boundary extension does not solve.

Local government is significantly constrained and is suffocated by central government. Changing the structure of a weak, dysfunctional, under-powered and under-resourced system of local government alters nothing.

You simply have a new structure which cannot disguise the fact that the system remains weak, dysfunctional, under-powered and under-resourced.

Aodh Quinlivan is the director of UCC’s Centre for Local and Regional Governance and a lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics.

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