Cork council merger is a chance to come in from the cold

Snow-bound Cork City as seen from the top of Patrick's Hill. Alf Smiddy believes the local authority merger is an opportunity for Cork. Picture: Denis Scannell

In a 120-page report, the Cork Local Government Review Group makes 15 proposals that support a unified authority for the region. Group chair Alf Smiddy explains its plans

I believe this report offers a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity for Cork and its citizens. A chance 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. 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.

At the heart of our proposal is a council with a strong city metropolitan division at its core that will be the powerhouse and driver of development for the Cork region. 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 regional level so as to put Cork in a much stronger position both nationally and internationally.

Our proposal sees a united and unified council that will be a model of excellence in delivering efficient, effective, and innovative local government. It will enable Cork to develop centres of excellence in the delivery of services across the region in areas such as economic development, housing, and planning.

The council will have the capacity to meet the diverse needs of county and city residents in a way that is both dynamic and responsive to local concerns.

Of course, not everyone will agree with our proposal. And indeed, within the committee, we had robust discussions and disagreements about the best way forward. However, we are all agreed that maintaining the status quo is not an option.

A larger metropolitan area is needed as is a local government system that strengthens the region. The proposal we have developed offers a way forward to address these challenges.

Under our new model, the existing anomalies in services between the city and the county will be eliminated. The 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.

I would like to emphasise two important elements of our proposal. One is that there should be substantial devolution of powers from central government to the new Cork authority. The other is that municipal and metropolitan districts should be strengthened to give them a stronger role in local government. These are important parts of the proposal and support our vision for Cork local government.

I would also like to emphasise that the majority of members opted for unification both because we believe it is the best way forward for local government in Cork, but also because we believe that the evidence indicates that a boundary extension is, in effect, unworkable, for the following main reasons:

  • Two separate authorities would lead to more divergent and potentially conflicting views on what is best for Cork. 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 Cork Area Strategic Plan;
  • In an enlarged city it will be more difficult to focus on the city centre, with the satellite towns likely taking more development;
  • There are major financial complexities associated with boundary extension, including ongoing payment of subventions from the city to the county, debt transfer from county to city, transfer of assets and liabilities, valuations, and associated legal complexity. Payments estimated at up to €36m per annum from the city to the county arising from the extension of the city boundary are simply unsustainable;
  • A boundary change of the scale envisaged is way beyond any previous boundary extension in the State, and is effectively a merger for the staff and structures affected. Nearly 400 staff would likely need to transfer from the county to the city. There would be major challenges associated with this level of staff transfer;
  • 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;
  • Historical evidence tells us that boundary extension has not and cannot work despite numerous failed and deeply acrimonious attempts over the last 50 years.

After our extensive deliberations, I am confident the city will flourish as the centre of a strong, united Cork. The position of Cork City as the centre of a dynamic city region and an effective counter balance to the growth of Dublin can be advanced more effectively in a unified structure than with two stand-alone structures.

Much more can be achieved with a unitary authority and combined resources than with divided responsibility. The model proposed for Cork is more than just a merger. There would be an irresistible case for major devolution of powers to what would be by far the largest unit of government within the State.

Our recommendation comes after eight months of a very serious, thorough review. There has been a huge level of engagement, and thanks are due to many people. I would particularly like to thank the mayors of the city and county councils, elected members, the chief executives, and their management teams, and the staff of the city and county councils for their support throughout the process. And to thank the national politicians and MEPs and many people and organisations that took the time to make submissions.

Finally I would like to recognise the hard work and dedication of my fellow committee members throughout the process. I believe that as people get a chance to examine and reflect on the details of our proposal, it will be well received in the city and the county. Unification can galvanise and mobilise citizens around a new and exciting future for Cork. Now is not the time to look back but to look forward.

Our proposal provides the opportunity to break the logjam after 50 years of failed attempts to revise local government boundaries in Cork. One council for Cork will hugely strengthen the positioning, status, and image of the Cork region globally, creating a new drive, energy and focus to attract foreign direct investment, substantially accelerate job creation, and promote local development for the benefit of all citizens.

Alf Smiddy is chairman of the Cork Local Government Review Committee

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