Cork council merger: Let’s not waste this golden opportunity

A single, unified authority, with a strong metropolitan division at its core, is the optimal solution to position Cork as an international location of substance, writes Barrie O’Connell

AS THE Cork Local Government Reform review deliberations draw to a conclusion, there is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the citizens and stakeholders in Cork to rethink the structure of local government.

The review is a perfect platform to implement disruptive reforms that will position Cork as an international location of substance for economic development, with a valuable contribution to make to European and world economies.

With this to the forefront of the chamber leadership’s thoughts, we strongly encourage the committee, chaired by Alf Smiddy and tasked with carrying out an objective review of local government arrangements in Cork City and County Cork, not to follow the path already taken, but, instead, to consider what is best for Cork to ensure it continues to compete with other city regions across the globe.

Cork’s population growth projections far exceed those predicted, percentage wise, in other regional cities. That is a unique proposition.

This validates our proposal for a governance structure that would attract major inward infrastructural and key investment in the years ahead and maximise our potential.

Conversely, it will be a missed opportunity, if we do not seize this unique occasion to innovate for Cork and 21st-century local government.

In our advocacy role, the chamber has focused on what is best for Cork, in terms of guaranteeing a prosperous and cohesive region that is a self-sustaining economic engine of growth driven by an expanded metropolitan area, having taken cognisance of international and national research on the subject, since the initiation of the review last January.

Following many months of debate and extensive engagement with key stakeholders, Cork Chamber has formulated its policy position, which advocates the need for a single, unified authority, with a strong metropolitan division at its core, as the optimal solution for Cork.

The expanded metropolitan area is the key driver of economic growth that will maximise the benefits for all. The case for an expanded metropolitan area is proven and undisputed, but why stop there?

Cork Chamber strongly believes the single, unified authority should have a separate division focussed on economic development. This is particularly pertinent, given the changing role of local governments and greater focus on their economic development responsibilities.

This is a clear example of a unitary authority proposition to communicate a single, consistent and powerful vision for the region.

However, there are risks, both on implementation and for the future, which need to be mitigated. Critical safeguards need to be introduced to preserve the metropolitan division’s effectiveness and authority within a unified authority. These include:

  • That a balance of power and authority, with respect to the number of elected members, is weighted in favour of the metropolitan division;
  • That private sector business is involved in decision-making at a strategic level, through the revision of existing structures.

We have been consistent and steadfast in urging the committee to include these safeguards in their final recommendations, assuming they opt for a unified authority, and believe they are essential if we are to capitalise on Cork’s key strengths and its opportunities to excel as a second-tier city region in the global marketplace.

Few countries have explicit policies for second-tier cities and regions, and the current review process is a real opportunity for Ireland to lead the way in driving economic development through creative governance and resourcing of second-tier cities and the regions they support, similar to what is happening in the UK with Manchester, vis-à-vis London.

With this in mind, we believe that the new governance structure should be based on public relations that include not just the public institutions, but the business stakeholders as well.

There is no reason why this cannot be incorporated into a governance structure for Cork. Revenue from commercial rates derived from businesses and employers, whom we represent, account for 43% of Cork City Council’s total income and 37% of Cork County Council’s total income.

In life and business, change is the only constant. There is significant change likely from the outcome of this review, in any scenario. In our view, we should be ambitious and not set limitations on what our region can achieve through geographic boundaries.

The creation of a single, unified authority can be more effectively implemented though creation of a single unity authority rather than merely extending the city boundary as there will be less formal barriers to implementation.

The data speaks for itself. We have a region which has a population in excess of 500,000 inhabitants, is home to close to 150 foreign direct investment companies, and is a key driver of the South-West regional economy which accounted for the highest percentage of Irish industrial output at 36.2%, or €36.7bn, in 2011.

Nevertheless, if are to successfully drive and manage the economic growth which Cork has a strong record and capability of delivering, over the next 50 years, we need enhanced strategic thinking and leadership across Cork’s local government structure and the wider community as embodied in the position Cork Chamber is advocating.

We hope the committee recommends to the minister taking the lead internationally in using the Cork region as an example of what can be achieved by rethinking the capacity and capabilities of local government.

And in doing so, providing the business community with a platform to be involved in council decision-making at a strategic level to transform our remarkable second-tier city region and position it competitively for future growth.

It is time to embrace change and fully grasp the opportunity.

Barrie O’Connell is the president of the Cork Chamber


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