Alf Smiddy lashes ‘bogus’ review criticising Cork council merger recommendation

Academic’s analysis of reports reignites debate on local government future, writes Eoin English

THE emergence of an international review which criticises key arguments in the controversial report recommending the creation of one super-council for Cork has reignited the contentious debate over the future of local government structures in the region.

News of the first independent analysis of the Smiddy group’s two reports — the majority report recommending a merger of Cork city and county councils within four years, with the new super council split into three divisions, and the minority report calling for the retention of the two councils and a significant city boundary extension — comes as a new four-person expert advisory group begins reviewing the Smiddy reports and documents in an effort to break the impasse.

After half a century of stalemate on the city boundary extension issue, business consultant Alf Smiddy was appointed by then-environment minister Alan Kelly in January 2015 to chair the five-person statutory Cork Local Government Review (CLGR) committee, which was charged with reviewing the case for a boundary extension or a council merger.

After nine months of consultation — which itself was criticised as inadequate — the CLGR group was split three-to-two when it published its radical local government reform proposals in September 2015.

Mr Smiddy said that a particular weakness of the boundary extension and dual council approach was that the financial, staffing, and structural implications would be substantial, posing a serious threat to the viability of the two councils.

He said that a boundary extension could see the city 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, he said.

Pooling resources and operating as a single council, promoting ‘One Cork’, and speaking with one voice would enable the new unified authority to bring together resources at a regional level, which would put Cork in a much stronger position nationally and internationally, he argued.

Mr Kelly accepted the merger recommendations, sparking controversy, dividing politicians and business groups, and triggering an unprecedented judicial review of the CLGR process by City Hall.

The Smiddy report has effectively been shelved and is now set for another review by a four-person expert advisory group, appointed by the Local Government Minister, Simon Coveney, and led by the former chief planner of the Scottish government, Jim Mackinnon.

However, the Irish Examiner has learned that UCC commissioned the international governance expert, Tony Bovaird, late last year to review the two Smiddy reports as it sought to arrive at its own position on the merger recommendation.

Prof Bovaird, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Birmingham, is the director of Governance International, a not-for-profit company based in the UK, which examines and advises on public governance and public service reform.

He has provided consultancy services to the OECD, the European Commission, the Council of Europe, the UK Cabinet Office, the Welsh and Scottish governments, and to many regional governments and local authorities in Europe and around the world.

UCC received his report earlier this year, and only a handful of copies were produced.

The report, which endorses the UCC academics’ minority report, has not been published and UCC has yet to make a public statement on its own position in relation to the proposed council merger.

However, the Irish Examiner has seen the Bovaird report — the first independent expert analysis of the both the majority and minority Smiddy reports.

Prof Bovaird assessed the arguments outlined in both reports under several headings, including the importance of a city to drive economic development; the need to resolve the differences in the strategic interests between the urban and rural parts of Cork; the potential for efficiency savings; improvements to governance, accountability and local democracy; financial and staffing arrangements; and the potential for devolution of central government functions.

He praised the Smiddy group for producing a report in such limited time and with limited resources, but he said that its key merger recommendation neglects the political realities of local government, and that he sees no evidence from the international literature to suggest that inward investors would be more attracted to invest in a region governed by a unified city or county council.

Prof Bovaird said the minority report’s argument that cities drive regions; that cities must have capacity to make decisions on finance, investment, planning and economic development; and that an independent city is important to secure maximum investment in urban economic development and infrastructure, is more convincing.

In relation to the urban/rural differences in Cork, Prof Bovaird said he agreed with the minority report argument that urban and rural areas have distinctive economic and social needs which require policy specialisation and clear operational boundaries, and with its statement that Cork City Council and Cork County Council have separate but complementary objectives, and these objectives are best met with two local authorities focused on delivering for their respective communities.

Alf Smiddy
Alf Smiddy

He said that the majority report did not provide convincing evidence to support its argument on potential efficiency savings from a single unified council, and that its argument about a merger resulting in significant economies of scope was “rather implausible”.

He described the majority report’s discussion on governance, accountability, and local democracy as “rather limited”, and added that, where it did occur, it was “very narrow”.

He found that the majority report’s suggestion that a merger was an easier option than boundary extension in relation to the implications for financial and staffing arrangements was not substantiated.

“Moreover, simpler solutions to the financial implications may be available than those suggested in the majority report,” he said.

In his summary, Prof Bovaird said that, in relation to the two key criteria — that cities drive economic growth, and the need to resolve the differences in the strategic interests between the metropolitan Cork region and the more rural areas — he found the majority report’s arguments, and the evidence used to support these arguments, “considerably less convincing” than those of the minority report.

He said more consideration is needed in relation to issues of governance, accountability, and local democracy.

“On my reading of the evidence, it strongly favours the option of separate city and county councils,” said Prof Bovaird.

However, he said attention should also be paid to the joint working relationships between the various agencies in Cork and the surrounding counties — not just between the city and county councils.

He also said that more discussion is needed on the role of citizen engagement and service-user feedback, which he said had been largely ignored in the two reports.

Taking everything together, Prof Bovaird said: “I believe the option of separate city and county councils, with a significant extension to the city boundary, is much better substantiated by the arguments presented in the reports and by the international evidence base.”

However, Mr Smiddy last night rubbished Prof Bovaird’s report as nothing more than an “academic essay” which misses several key points in the majority report, and branded his findings “bogus”.

“I sincerely hope that Irish taxpayers’ money wasn’t used to fund this academic essay-writing,” Mr Smiddy said.

“It’s bizarre that UCC asked yet another academic, this time an English academic, who, from what I hear, hardly knew where Cork was on the map, and who it seems was asked to do some light desk-top research on what it appears as highly dubious, innocuous and bogus terms of reference.

“And, as part of his work, it seems that the only ones he may have consulted were other academics in UCC who had already nailed their colours to the mast, and many of whom had campaigned vociferously from the very start of the work of my committee against any notion of merging Cork city and county councils.

“I’m afraid when the terms of reference and intent appear questionable or bogus, then the findings can only be bogus too.

“Unlike the Smiddy report, it is not evidence-based and is clearly more about general theoretical opinions from academics supporting academics, and actually lacks any real substance or understanding of Cork.

“One wonders if the outcome of this essay from this British academic was predetermined — it’s barely credible that UCC would not want to support its own academic staff and department.

“It may be just more politics at play, as UCC were hardly going to embarrass their own academic staff and political science personnel.

“But I do think that even first-year political science students could see through this nonsense, including leaking of this essay, an essay from one academic to another.”

As the Mackinnon group begins reviewing the Smiddy reports and the raft of associated documentation — documentation denied to City Hall despite freedom of information requests — it would do well to read Prof Bovaird’s introduction, in which he says no proposed local government restructuring will be without its winners and losers.

“It is a basic principle of democratic governance that these benefits and costs to different groups shall be transparent, not hidden,” he said. “In that respect, both the majority and minority reports fall short of the ideal, since neither contains a clear tabulation of winners and losers from their proposals.”

Prof BovairdHe said that, as the debate continues, it would be highly valuable if all participants were asked to outline more clearly the winners and losers from their proposals, how many fall into each category, what types of benefits and costs they are likely to experience, and over what time.

“This would help to ensure that claims made in proposals were more firmly grounded in the evidence base, and would make it clear where there is little evidence, or where the evidence is contested,” he said.

Majority report and the actions it recommended

The report of the Cork Local Government Review group, chaired by business consultant Alf Smiddy, was billed last year as one of the biggest shake-ups of Cork’s local government structures in a generation. The five-person committee was split three-to-two in favour of merging the city and county councils.

Mr Smiddy, former Kerry county manager Tom Curran, and John Lucey backed the majority report, which made the following key recommendations:

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 also incorporating 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 the city and county councils already for planning purposes. Metropolitan Cork had a population of 289,739 in 2011 and it covers an area of 834 sq km. 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 Cork metropolitan area should constitute one of three divisions:

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. 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.

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.

10. All the executive and corporate functions and resources of local government 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 CEO for the new authority 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. An implementation group be established to oversee the reforms and ensure the new arrangements are in place by the 2019 local elections.

Minority report from Reidy and Keogh and what it recommended

The two members of the Cork Local Government Review Group who vehemently opposed the single authority approach which would lead to the creation of a super council for Cork — Theresa Reidy and Dermot Keogh — issued a minority report recommending the first city boundary extension in 50 years, and the retention of the two separate local authorities.

Their report made the following key recommendations:

  • There should be a substantial boundary extension for Cork City;
  • Preparations for the boundary extension should begin immediately, with an implementation date to coincide with the local elections in 2019;
  • A permanent, legally binding, mechanism for addressing the boundaries of all local authorities should be put in place;
  • A boundary in principle and a city of the scale of no less than 230,000 citizens but the precise positioning of the boundary should be agreed by the two local authorities with reference to existing infrastructure and townlands.

Should the minister direct a boundary extension be implemented, agreement on the precise boundary should be reached within three months of the ministerial decision.

Mindful of the fact that migration to Europe from east to west and from south to north may pose a challenge for many Irish cities in the immediate future, Cork City should be prepared to accept larger numbers of refugees than it has experienced since the foundation of the State. This will push up the figures of those living in the city.

There are financial implications of a considerable scale involved in the boundary extension. Due diligence will be required to arrive at precise figures but the following principles are recommended to guide the process. The boundary extension should be implemented in 2019. An agreed package of compensation should be paid for a five-year period (one electoral cycle) in order to facilitate transition. A reduced compensation package should be put in place for a further 10 years (two electoral cycles) with the amount being paid declining to zero over the 10-year period.

Some transfer of staff will be required. Figures provided to the committee would need to be independently evaluated but the staff transfer should take place during the period from 2019 to 2024 and should be conducted in accordance with the industrial relations protocols of the public service.

The electoral divisions for the extended Cork City will need to be agreed and an independent committee should be tasked with this work.


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