Cork Council Merger: There’s a long way to go for everyone to meet in middle

The first question one could reasonably ask upon glancing through the report recommending a merger of Cork City and County Councils is — Catherine Shanahan asks; will this actually ever happen?

Historically, efforts to reorganise the councils or redraw existing boundaries have tended to hit the skids (see chapter two of the report).

Implementation of this particular report’s recommendations — ‘The Report of the Cork Local Government Committee on Local Government Arrangements in Cork’ — will require substantial commitment on a number of fronts.

First off, Environment and Local Government Minister Alan Kelly needs his Government colleagues to support his support of the merger. One assumes — but maybe one shouldn’t — that they will.

Then there’s the need for legislation to allow the merger to take place, which one assumes will be neither straightforward nor swift. An implementation group is required to drive the merger forward. The Boundary Commission will need to assess the pros and cons. And there’s that little matter of a general election looming, bringing with it, in all likelihood, a new environment minister and a good chance of this report being laid to rest. Unless, that is, you buy into the mantra of the two men currently most passionate about seeing it through — Alan Kelly and business consultant Alf Smiddy, who chaired the five-member report group.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” they told the assembled media yesterday at the launch of the landmark report.

The reason doing nothing is not an option is because while Dublin continues to gallop ahead — regularly featuring in European “best of” city lists, attracting more visitors than it has pavements to host them, and recently ranking ahead of San Francisco, Paris, and Melbourne for attracting foreign direct investment — Cork seems to be increasingly losing ground to cities such as Galway and Limerick.

Mr Kelly and Mr Smiddy argue that a merger of the two councils, to create “what would be by far the largest unit of government within the State” would give Cork the muscle it needed to successfully argue for a major devolution of powers.

This is turn, they say, would allow Cork to position itself better economically and socially going forward and, as per the report, “to act as an effective counter-weight at a national scale to the current economic predominance of Dublin and the eastern part of the country”.

“It certainly will be creating a dynamic here that can compete with eastern seaboard,” Mr Kelly said.

Arguing that there’s strength in unity is valid. As Mr Kelly said, a merger would make Cork the largest unitary authority in the State “by a county mile”.

Then there’s the streamlining of services and the savings to the taxpayer — at a basic level, cutting back from two auditors to one, from two corporate affairs departments to one, from two sets of marketing proposals to one, as Mr Smiddy pointed out.

But that begs the question — will a merger mean a reduction in staff? Mr Kelly was not able to answer this question yesterday — he said the specifics will be looked at by an implementation group. What he could confirm is that there would be no reduction in the number of councillors, which stands at 86.

All 86 could arguably attend council meetings of the new unitary body, although the report recommends, as a “possible alternative”, “a smaller number of members to be appointed to meet at full unitary council level from the three divisions”.

The three divisions will include the Cork Metropolitan Division; Cork North and East Municipal Division; and Cork West and South Municipal Division. The metropolitan division — which essentially includes Cork City, Ballincollig, Blarney, Douglas, Carrigaline, Carrigtwohill, Midleton, Glanmire, Glounthane. and Cobh — will receive a little extra love, retaining the role of lord mayor, with the recommendation that the option of a directly elected lord mayor be considered.

The metropolitan division will also have a deputy chief executive with designated responsibility for Metropolitan Cork. A chief executive, recruited through open competition, would run the new single authority.

But back to strength in unity. The report and its recommendations are flawed in this respect. Two of the five-member group dissented and issued a minority report calling instead for a boundary extension for the first time in 50 years, and the retention of two separate councils.

This was the preferred option of lecturer in government at UCC, Theresa Reidy, and professor of history, Dermot Keogh. In their robust foreword to their minority report, they said they “disagreed with substantial parts of the draft report, the main finding, and most of the conclusions. At that point, it became necessary to draft a separate minority report”.

They were also highly critical of the “short time frame for the deliberations [the group met 25 times since January] and the robustness of the data provided”, which, they said, meant “precision is not always possible”. Asked if two dissenting voices meant the report was fundamentally flawed, Mr Kelly said he would have been “surprised” if there had been total agreement.

“I don’t see that as an issue at all... this is a very emotive issue, it’s an issue many people have different views on, and I respect those views,” he said.

Indeed there were many views on offer yesterday. While Cork County Council supports the merger, the city council does not. Developer Michael O’Flynn supports a single authority; fellow developers Owen O’Callaghan and John Cleary do not. The Cork Business Association has voiced its opposition; the Cork Chamber of Commerce is behind it 100%.

There’s a long road to travel before the recommendations of this report are carried through — if ever.

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