By Eoin English
Cork city and county councils should be merged within four years with the new super council split into three divisions under radical new local government reform proposals to be unveiled today.
Cork City Council would be abolished and replaced with a Metropolitan Cork division to govern an expanded city and suburban region of some 290,000 people, with a Cork North and East Municipal Division and a Cork West and South Municipal Division each feeding into the unified authority.
Powers should be devolved from central government and some state agencies to each of the three divisions, special provisions should be made to retain the historic civic status of Lord Mayor and the option of a directly elected Lord Mayor should also be considered.
And the number of councillors who would meet at the single authority level should be reduced from 86 - the combined number from a merged city and county council - with proposals for a smaller number to be nominated from each of the divisions to attend the high level meetings.
These are amongst the key recommendations of 15 sweeping reforms proposed by Cork Local Government Review group which will present its report to Environment Minister Alan Kelly today.
Three of its five members have backed the recommendations. The two who opposed the single authority approach - Dr Theresa Reidy and Prof Dermot Keogh - have issued a minority report recommending the first city boundary extension in 50 years, and the retention of the two separate local authorities.
Alf Smiddy, chair of the review group which has been meeting since January, said the majority had come to the view that a boundary extension was not a viable option.
"Looking at the city in isolation, perhaps a boundary extension might in theory seem to offer an easy solution," he said.
"But if things were that simple we would not have had to wait 50 years since the last boundary extension.
"A particular weakness of the boundary extension and two council approach is the fact that the financial, staffing and structural implications of the approach would be substantial, posing a serious threat to the viability of the two councils."
He said a boundary extension could see the city council paying an annual compensation bill of up to €36m a year to the county given the scale of assets and liabilities that would have to be transferred.
A boundary extension would also require the transfer of an estimated 400 staff from the county to the city.
"These financial and other systems and resource implications have tended to be glossed over by proponents of an enlarged, stand-alone city authority," Mr Smiddy said.
And he said it was noted that those who argued in favour of a boundary extension had "highly differing views" on the extent of such an extension.
"Two separate authorities would also lead to more divergent and potentially conflicting views on what is best for Cork," he said.
"Planning for balanced economic and social development would become more difficult.
"There is a significant risk of major erosion of the greenbelt contrary to the agreed proposals of sustainable development set out in the CASP.
"Furthermore, it is not clear how the area which would remain the responsibility of the county would work organisationally or structurally.
"This area would not be a cohesive unit, would have no clear focal point and would be far removed from the existing council headquarters."
He said he believes the report and its recommendations offers a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity for a new beginning for local government in Cork.
"We have listened closely to everyone who has made a submission or expressed views about the best way forward," he said.
"I strongly believe the solution we have come up with of one council to serve the whole of Cork, city and county, represents a ‘win-win’ situation for Cork.
"At the heart of our proposal is a council with a strong city metropolitan division as its core that will be the powerhouse and driver of development for the Cork region."
He said pooling resources and operating as a single council, promoting 'One Cork' and speaking with one voice, will enable the new authority to bring together resources at a regional level which would put Cork in a much stronger position nationally and internationally.
He also said the proposals, if implemented, would create a united and unified structure which would be a model of excellence in delivering efficient, effective and innovative local government, and would create "centres of excellence" in the delivery of services in areas such as economic development, housing and planning.
He said existing anomalies in services between the city and the county will be eliminated, that different back office systems and processes will be streamlined and a simplified approach for citizens throughout the region introduced.
"This consistent approach for all Cork citizens, combined with political governance structures that put the city and metropolitan area at the heart of the council, will strengthen local government and democracy in the region with Cork citizens being put first," he said.
A renewed Cork local government, with a strong city as its core, of sufficient scale, resources and vigour, can have a transformational effect.
"This would enable Cork to act as an effective counter-weight at a national scale to the current economic predominance of Dublin and the eastern part of the country.
"It would help give Cork greater capacity to compete internationally and to act as an engine of growth not only for the entirety of Cork but the wider Munster/southern area of the country."
The report will be presented to Minister Alan Kelly just after noon today.
It's the biggest shakeup in Cork's local government structures in a generation. These are the key recommendations of the Cork Local Government review group.
1. A unitary authority of Cork City and County Council should be established as the statutory local authority for Cork as a whole..
2. An appropriate Cork metropolitan area should be designated encompassing the city and suburbs but incorporating also a further surrounding area that would be consistent with the sustainable physical, economic and social development of the city in the medium to long-term. This would be the existing Metropolitan Cork area as set out in the Cork Area Strategic Plan (CASP) and used by both the city and county council already for planning purposes. Metropolitan Cork had a population of 289,739 in 2011 and it covers an area of 834 square kilometres. The city within the metropolitan area should be redefined to reflect the current reality on the ground, a task to be undertaken by the implementation group.
3. The representational body for the new Cork metropolitan area should constitute one of three divisions which would form a central element of the new Cork City and County Council. In recognition of the existing divisional structures these could be titled as follows:
a. Cork Metropolitan Division
b. Cork North and East Municipal Division
c. Cork West and South Municipal Division
4. Municipal districts, with a metropolitan district for Cork City, should be established in conjunction with electoral area re-definition. The local electoral areas should be reconfigured to produce a greater number of more territorially compact areas which would be more closely identified with local communities and traditional local loyalties and would be more manageable for councillors.
5. Meetings of the city and county council should focus on a limited number of key strategic issues for the authority. The structure of the unitary council should be addressed by the implementation group. A possible alternative to full unitary council meetings of 86 members would be for a smaller number of members to be appointed to meet at full unitary council level from the three divisions.
6. In tandem with the location of more strategic functions at the level of the unitary council, the role and status of the metropolitan/municipal divisions and metropolitan and municipal districts should be enhanced beyond that of current municipal districts by assigning appropriate functions that are currently confined to city/county councils to divisional and district level in Cork. These functions should be provided directly by statute. Particular attention should be given to ensuring members can perform an adequate budgetary role at metropolitan/municipal division level. In addition the potential to assign roles to the metropolitan/municipal division members in relation to functions devolved from central government should be fully exploited.
7. Special provisions should be enacted to preserve the historic civic status of Cork city, including retaining the role of Lord Mayor for the chair of the metropolitan division and associated status and customs. The option of a directly elected Lord Mayor should be considered.
8. The unified City and County Council should have responsibility for the main strategic functions of local government such as adoption of the annual budget, the corporate plan, the development plan and the local economic and community plan. An economic development unit should be established to promote and coordinate an integrated approach to development.
9. In addition to these strategic functions, significant powers and functions should be identified for devolution from central government and state agencies to the unitary authority. This would represent a radical new departure for local government in Cork, bringing it into closer alignment with its counterparts in most European states. It would also provide a model for other parts of the country.
10. All the executive and corporate functions and resources of local government in Cork should be consolidated in the unitary authority as the statutory local authority under the management of a chief executive for Cork city and county council. This will reduce duplication and maximise efficiency.
11. The appointment of a chief executive for the new authority is a priority issue and should be progressed as soon as possible. The appointment should be advanced through an open competition process.
12. A deputy chief executive position should be created, with designated responsibility for Metropolitan Cork, and for economic development for the entire council.
13. The next local elections are due to be held in mid-2019. Given the importance of the changes in governance arrangements being recommended, the Committee considers that measures should be taken to develop and implement substantial elements of the new system on a transitional basis ahead of those elections.
14. An implementation group be established immediately following the government decision to oversee the reforms and ensure the new arrangements are in place by the local elections in 2019.
15. Cork city and county councils appoint a dedicated project team from existing staff to assist in the preparation of the implementation plan.