Minister for Local Government Simon Coveney has announced a review of the controversial merger plan for Cork city and county councils in a bid to find a compromise.
Mr Coveney confirmed that the process, which he hopes will start in September, will include a re-examination, by a new panel of experts, of the complex issues considered last year by the Cork Local Government Review (CLGR) committee.
The five-person group, chaired by business consultant Alf Smiddy, was split three-to-two in favour of a merger. The decision triggered a judicial review by Cork City Council.
Mr Coveney told the Irish Examiner that while a merger is not off the table, other options may emerge during the review.
“We’ll take a fresh look at this, It will probably involve new people. Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes and maybe some new thinking is helpful when you’re trying to find middle ground,” he said.
“There was a lot of controversy on this issue when the [merger] report was launched and my job is to take the politics and heat out of that, initially, and then sit down with the stakeholders in the city and county to find a middle ground that’s good for Cork, and that both city and county chambers will support.
I think it’s possible to do that. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. I intend on trying to do that before the end of the year.”
The CLGR group was established by former Environment Minister Alan Kelly in January 2015.
Under Mr Smiddy, the group which included former Kerry county manager Tom Curran, John Lucey SC, and UCC academics Dermot Keogh and Theresa Reidy, was tasked to review the local government arrangements in Cork, to consider the case for a city boundary extension, and make recommendations for improving the region’s local government arrangements.
Following months of public consultation, the CLGR published its final report last September, recommending a merger of the two councils.
However, Mr Keogh and Ms Reidy published a minority report, which argued for an extension of the city boundary and the retention of both councils.
Mr Kelly agreed with the merger recommendation, which he said would achieve the benefits of addressing the boundary issue, while avoiding the disadvantages that would arise from transferring substantial resources and compensation payments between the councils.
The merger recommendation split the city and county. Cork City Council has sought a judicial review of the CLGR process, and the Smiddy report was shelved.
Mr Coveney said he recognises that implementing changes to the region’s local government structures will be difficult unless both councils are on board.
“I have a unique opportunity now, as a Cork person and as the minister with responsibility for this area, to find a compromise that the city and county are comfortable with,” he said.
“What we need to do is find a proposal that can maintain autonomy for the city, while at the same time ensuring that we have representation that links the city and county in a way that ensures Cork as a region is being represented in a more seamless way.”
Confirmation of the review comes as the Department of Environment finalises a national planning framework — a strategy to determine what Ireland will look like in 20 to 30 years.
Mr Coveney said Cork, with a population of some 500,000, should be the dominant driver for growth and job creation outside Dublin.
“I think Cork can feature in a very significant way in that plan, so we need a governance structure that sees those opportunities and can respond to them,” he said.
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