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.
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
Minority report from Reidy and Keogh and what it recommended
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