Cork Council Merger: The right thing should never be too hard to do

Cork City Council chief executive Ann Doherty outlines what she believes are myths being put forward by those in favour of a merger of the city and county councils.

The publication by the Local Government Review Committee of its report into the City boundary issue and its recommendation that Cork City Council and Cork County Council should merge has generated, not unexpectedly, significant debate on the airwaves and in the press.

That debate, in my opinion, is best left in the hands of those elected by the people to represent their views.

However, in the interests of ensuring that the people of Cork have accurate information, I am reluctantly compelled to dispel some of the ongoing myths which are being collectively put forward by those supporting the merger option.

(a) The merger would produce significant economic growth whilst a boundary extension would not.

Cork Council Merger: The right thing should never be too hard to do

There is no empirical evidence whatsoever for this assertion. Indeed, all of the evidence-based research would indicate that a strong metropolitan city of circa 250,000 – 350,000 people promotes not only significant growth for itself but has a profound impact on the economic health of its hinterland.

Any objective evaluation shows that apart from its county towns, Cork County is largely rural in nature. Indeed much of the industrial wealth of the county is based in the periphery of the city in what can be described as Metropolitan Cork.

That concentration is there for a reason. The significant volume of multi-nationals present in Cork have demonstrated a clear preference to be close to the urban area.

It is important to point out that this area peripheral to the City generates a net surplus in the region of €30m per annum which the County Council uses to subvent services to other areas of the County.

In a merged scenario, the City will be hard pressed to resist the loss of further resources from its core revenue base – further undermining its role as the economic driver for the region.

Chambers Ireland clearly supports the concept of local government. It annually hosts an Excellence in Local Government event and on more than one occasion Cork City Council has been the recipient of the Best Local Authority Award.

Perhaps surprisingly therefore the Cork Chamber of Commerce has come out strongly in favour of the merger proposal.

The position which Cork Chamber has adopted was not entirely unanticipated, and, of course, it will be argued that it is in the interests of their members.

However, it is clear that the Chambers position does not represent the views of all of its members, many businesses having expressed serious concerns about the merger proposal and its impacts.

Most worryingly of all, the evidence for an equally beneficial or better economic windfall being offered by an independent metropolitan area has been comprehensively ignored by this organisation.

We have heard from many quarters that the complexity in extending the City boundary is a negative consideration and the ease with which the City and the County might be amalgamated is a significant benefit.

This process should not be about what is easiest but about what is best. Whilst I do not necessarily agree that the extension of the boundary would be more complex, even if it were, this is not a valid argument for refusing the City room to breathe.

Having worked in the public services for the past thirty three years, I have significant experience in mergers in the public sector context. It is untrue and unrealistic to believe that an extension is more complicated than a merger. Both require significant due diligence, staff reassignment etc.

The complexity of merging two organisations with a combined staff of over 5,000 should not be underestimated. It amazes me that organisations which have no experience of such mergers in a public sector context are stating that the merger option is easier and best for Cork – I am not at all convinced.

What must also be borne in mind is that while a city authority must be an economic driver or its area, it must also have due regard to many other facets of the society which it governs and serves.

That responsibility is not borne lightly by the City Council.

Our conviction that a significantly expanded city boundary is the best solution is based on our evaluation of economic growth, service infrastructure, proper spatial planning, strategic development, the social needs of our citizens and the overall wellbeing of our City and our County.

This more expansive approach to what a local authority is supposed to do was endorsed by the report of Professor Dermot Keogh and Dr. Theresa Reidy (a report, by the way, that was consigned to the 6th Appendix in the overall report).

What we should be primarily concerned with, however, is how we are governed and how what local governance responds to our needs and aspirations. It is about how decisions are made which directly affect every citizen of Cork.

When it comes to the finer details, there have been many appeals made which suggest that everything which has been left hanging by the main report will be dealt with during the implementation phase. I would argue it is impossible to subscribe to such a proposal when the parent report itself is fundamentally flawed.

If this report’s recommendations are implemented it will undoubtedly mean an end to Cork’s second city status and in doing so will emasculate this City’s potential to act as an effective counter balance to the current concentration of development and resources on the east coast.

(b) The city will take a prominent position in the new merged Council.

Cork Council Merger: The right thing should never be too hard to do

This is a false promise. Let us be under no illusions. What is proposed in the report is the abolition of Cork City Council as an independent decision making authority and its reconstitution as a district within a division within the larger County.

It is the first time that the City of Cork will no longer have an accountable democratic forum capable of making decisions in respect of its administrative area and those who live within it.

The centre of power will be located outside the city with decision making powers in relation to policy and finance confined to a small number of elite Councillors. This flies in the face of everything that local government is supposed to stand for.

Far from putting people first, this process will further distance those affected by decisions from those making them.

The Council of Europe has already publically criticised this policy and its effect of disenfranchising ordinary people. Whatever legitimate criticisms might be levelled at Cork City Council, it could never be accused of supporting such an unwelcome initiative.

The report also hints at new devolved powers being offered to the merged Councils. As an opening statement on this issue, I would argue that if such powers were to materialise, they could equally be offered to an enlarged autonomous metropolitan Cork area.

However, it is clear, even to the most casual observer, that the State’s track record since its foundation has been in the opposite direction and that government policy has sought to centralise powers rather than devolve them.

Indeed, the abolition of Town Councils and the amalgamation of City and County Councils points in one direction only – the clear intention to centralise control.

Even if a transfer of functions were intended, the removal of these from their existing parent organisations such as Bus Eireann, An Garda Siochana, Failte Ireland etc would meet significant resistance and, on a practical level, be unworkable.

(c) The process engaged in deciding the issue should not be opposed.

Cork Council Merger: The right thing should never be too hard to do

The suggestion that any concerns regarding the process engaged in should be swept under the carpet is deeply worrying and, in my view, wholly undemocratic.

This decision was taken on a three to two majority, meaning that one single individual has decided that Cork City and County should be merged.

The Lord Mayor of Cork has expressed concern at the haste with which this matter is to be brought before Cabinet.

Surely such an important decision should have been a cause for serious reflection on its impact, particularly when one bears in mind that the results of these recommendations will be felt in this region for at least 50 years to come.

I think any rational minded observer would agree that that is something that should have been given proper and, indeed, forensic consideration.

(d) The merged City/County will do things just as well as two separate authorities.

Cork Council Merger: The right thing should never be too hard to do

As pointed out above, the County is largely rural and the City, of course, urban. The emphasis on policy and the delivery of that policy must be quite different in both local authorities.

And it is normal to have different approaches to the delivery of policy in urban and rural centres. Urban authorities should have an urban focus and rural authorities take a rural perspective.

Conflict most often arises where you have a unitary body attempting to do both these things under one roof. The City deals in a much more concentrated way on issues of social inclusion, housing, amenity, transportation, built heritage etc than its counterparts in the County.

The number of social housing, festivals and recreational amenities far exceeds what the County deals with on the day to day basis. The political representation which will result from a merger will guarantee a continuous tussle along the rural/urban divide for resources, with inevitably one of those interests losing out.

This is not the optimum solution for any local authority. In its report, the Committee cited the so called acrimonious attempts at previous boundary extension proposals as one of the reasons not to recommend a boundary extension.

The City Council’s experience has been that there has been no acrimony at all.

Every attempt by the City to raise the issue of a boundary extension over the past 40 years has simply been met with a flat refusal by the County Council to consider the issue - consigning the city to exist in an ever tightening economic and spatial straightjacket.

Now, as the City Council raises legitimate and well founded concerns regarding the evidence for the merger proposal, it is being described as opposing what is best for Cork. Nothing could be further from the truth.

CONCLUSION

Cork Council Merger: The right thing should never be too hard to do

It is important that I emphasise again my opening remarks. My decision to publically record my views on this process has been taken reluctantly.

However, as Chief Executive of Cork City Council, (in my view, one of the finest local authorities in the country), I cannot in all good conscience oversee its consignment to the history books without highlighting what are, to any objective viewer, glaring inconsistencies in the process and the supporting arguments presented in favour of its abolition.

Of course local government is in need of reform. It must constantly reinvent itself to remain relevant to the people it is charged with serving.

However, restructuring is not reform and the oblique and unconvincing promise of new powers for a new authority do nothing to convince me that a thirst for genuine reform is at the heart of this process.

With regard to the report itself, any public policy must be based on a forward thinking process - one that attempts to look as far as practicable into the future and takes all relevant issues into account and, equally importantly, disregards all that which is irrelevant to the issue at hand.

There are simply too many independent voices saying that this report and its recommendations comes nowhere near to meeting that standard for it to be allowed to remain unchallenged.

Cork is too illustrious and too proud a city to sit back and watch its remarkable history of local governance sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

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