Cork council merger plan disregards evidence of what works

William Brady, Jonathan Hall, and Brendan O’Sullivan of UCC’s planning department raise serious concerns after reading the Smiddy report favouring the merger of Cork city and county councils

UCC’s Centre for Planning Education and Research has followed the issue of local government reform in Cork for many years, and we have been actively engaged on this subject long before the minister appointed the Cork Local Government Committee Review Group. We specialise in the areas of urban, regional and rural planning, city- regions, local government reform, regeneration and economic development, and are in a position to comment on the most recent developments as objective and dispassionate observers.

Our agenda is very simple — to use evidence as a basis for good decision-making in public policy, and to use this to consider what is best for Cork.

We have read the report of the committee, and note with interest that the group could not develop consensus on the way forward. This is an extremely important development, and the existence of a minority report, coupled with the very strong and growing opposition to the merger from across the political, public, business, and academic spectrum, indicates that this issue is far from being resolved.

However, our review of the two positions contained in the report suggests that there has in fact been some very important progress — especially around acceptance of the role and importance of the concept of metropolitan Cork. This is in fact a major development.

It is now universally accepted that the region needs a strong and dynamic urban entity at its heart, and that this should exist at a metropolitan scale. Perhaps now, with this in mind, it is time to consider how best to achieve this. What is very clear is that abolishing the State’s second city and forcing the county and the city into some form of unhappy marriage of convenience is not the way to do this.

The people of Cork face two crucial challenges in the coming generations. The first is to find ways of enabling a dynamic metropolitan-scale city to thrive in the face of the well-understood urban realities of a globalised 21st century world. This is important not just for the region as a whole but for the future of the State itself. It requires sophisticated, decisive and urban-focussed leadership structures that are at a large enough scale to enable Cork to carve out meaningful urban identity on the international stage. This is what our competitors are doing.

The second challenge is essentially a rural one, and has to do with the very real issues of agricultural restructuring, changing rural demography, quality of life, peripherality, and environmental protection. It also has to do with decisions about the infrastructural priorities for the towns, villages, and coastal areas of Cork on ways of serving the rural hinterlands efficiently, and about attracting appropriate levels of investment. This requires an authoritative voice that acts as a rural counterweight to the urban-metropolitan one mentioned above. It is a voice that needs to drive the rural agenda not only on its own terms within the county but also at regional and national level.

Each of these challenges requires specialist, focused attention supported by separate institutions and models of political leadership that are specifically designed to maximise the ways in which each particular set of needs are met and in which genuine potential for growth and development is realised.

A single authority simply cannot and will not be able to provide this. In fact, it gives us the worst of both worlds. An oversized and unworkable entity that will never be able to fully meet the needs of the two core constituencies. Instead, they will be diluted, downgraded, and confused. One, or both, will suffer.

The recommendations in their current form do not serve either the second city of Cork or one of the State’s largest and most important counties. The majority report appears to disregard the evidence on what makes cities and regions work effectively. Though it quite rightly highlights the need to retain and strengthen the metropolitan green belt and protect the city centre core, it undermines both of these aspirations by recommending these areas now be controlled through local area plan provisions — a considerably weaker level of protection than currently exists under full development plan status. This increases the likelihood of urban sprawl and the subsequent erosion of both the green belt and the urban core.

Similarly, there is no sense that the very real structural and economic challenges facing the extensive (and in many cases) remote rural and coastal areas have been engaged with in any meaningful way. To implement the majority recommendation would leave us with neither a self-governing city nor a county that can focus unencumbered on the distinctive and pressing needs of rural Ireland.

Cork, as a city, will no longer be able to produce its own development plan, and will no longer have the powers to make planning decisions — removing one of the basic functions of any city — the ability to manage its development, regeneration and investment, and to shape its social and economic future. This thinking rejects all available evidence and best practice, and is something that no other European city (i.e. our competitors) would countenance. Cork should aim higher than this.

Equally, the interests of the county, with its diverse and expansive territory of towns, villages, and rural and coastal areas can only be addressed properly if its council can focus on the types of issues relevant to those places. Put bluntly, the needs of declining, isolated, and peripheral rural villages cannot be met on the same local authority agenda that also has to do address intractable inner city issues associated with systemic intergenerational unemployment and urban decay. Similarly, the ways in which dynamic market towns can spread growth and opportunity to their rural hinterlands requires entirely different specialisms and policy making skills to those needed for creating dynamic urban and suburban communities. A combined authority simply cannot provide the required focus to govern the needs of Ireland’s second city as well as Ireland’s biggest county.

It will simply be an oversized, and undemocratic entity which will be pulled in all directions. The clearest illustration of this is contained in the majority report itself — which acknowledges that the new authority of 86 members may in fact be too large to discharge its democratic functions effectively, suggesting some form of partial representation structures instead. This surely means it is too large and unwieldy..

We need now to consider carefully whether this idea of a single authority will deliver what is right for Cork. Future generations will not thank us if we allow the entire region’s prospects to be determined on the basis of selecting an option for Cork’s governance weighed heavily in favour of bureaucracies rather than citizens and businesses.

William Brady, Jonathan Hall, and Brendan O’Sullivan are members of UCC’s local government and planning department

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