Fighting back against merger of Cork councils

18 lord mayor have set aside party politics to unite against a super council and to spark public debate, says Eoin English

THERE have been rumblings for months about the Cork Local Government Review process, with claims, which have been denied, that it was predetermined: that a merger of the city and county councils was the preferred outcome and that the process was designed to deliver that result.

So the decision by 18 former lords mayor of Cork to speak out about their fears for the future of the city, if a merger, is, as they claim, looking more likely, is hugely significant.

They have set aside party politics to lay out what they feel is at stake for Ireland’s second city. They hope to trigger more public debate on a process that will affect Cork’s citizens for the next 50 years.

The review process has passed almost unnoticed since it began in January. For example, there was an oral hearing into the CPO of the former Showgrounds lands, in Ballintemple, some years ago, yet no public hearing about this crucial review.

Despite calls for public engagement, there has been little, given what’s at stake, with only 100 submissions made to the group. A quick read of several submissions shows that some people don’t know what the process is designed to achieve. Others add little to the debate. Only a handful — and they are substantial documents — present the review group with relevant information and arguments to consider.

Today’s intervention by the former mayors is the first time that the tensions about the review process have been made public.

Whether people care enough about their intervention to start a public debate about how Cork is governed remains to be seen. Whether their intervention influences those involved in the review process will be known in about four weeks.

Perhaps it’s too late.

The Cork Local Government Review Group was set up by Environment Minister, Alan Kelly, last January and told to report by September.

Chaired by business consultant, Alf Smiddy, it includes Dermot Keogh, John Lucey SC, UCC’s Theresa Reidy, and former Kerry County manager Tom Curran.

They were tasked with reviewing Cork’s local government structures, to examine the case for the first extension of the city boundary since 1965, or the possible merger or amalgamation of the city and county councils.

Mr Smiddy promised that there would be full engagement with interested stakeholders. After 50 years of failed attempts by the city to secure a boundary extension, there was a guarded welcome for the process. But as it unfolded, unease emerged among those advocating for a boundary extension and the retention of two authorities.

There was a suggestion, by some who engaged in the process, that it appeared as if a merger of the two councils was the only outcome being considered.

Mr Smiddy has refused to be drawn on whether the group will recommend a dual authority or recommend the ‘One Cork’ approach — merging the two councils into a single, super council, with a number of key divisions to govern the county — before submitting his report to Mr Kelly.

Either way, their recommendations will affect the lives of the half a million people who live in Ireland’s biggest county, up to 2070, shaping the delivery of a wide range of services to the public, from fixing potholes, to planning, to parks and playgrounds, and from public lighting and libraries to arts funding and festivals.

The 18 former mayors who have warned against a merger are Jim Corr, who was one of Ireland’s longest-serving city councillors, before his retirement last year; Paud Black; John Dennehy; Dan Wallace; Denis Cregan; Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin; Joe O’Callaghan; Damian Wallace; PJ Hourican; Tom O’Driscoll; John Kelleher; Michael Ahern; Donal Counihan; Michael O’Connell; Terry Shannon; John Buttimer; Catherine Clancy; and Mary Shields. Just five are still sitting councillors.

The argument for retaining two local authorities has been spearheaded by the city council in its detailed submission to the review group — one to govern an enlarged metropolitan Cork area, which would drive economic development in the region, and the other to govern the rest of the county.

It has pointed to the experience in South East Queensland, in Australia, where four local council mergers are being reversed; to Brisbane, where local authority consolidation has been halted; and to mergers in Ireland, such as the HSE, which have presented their own problems.

It quotes Aodh Quinlivan, of UCC’s Department of Government and an expert in local government, who argues against a merger and who has warned that West Cork is now one of the most under-represented regions in the country, following the abolition of town councils last year.

Dr Quinlivan says evidence from more than 400 local government cases worldwide, over 40 years, shows the ‘big is beautiful’ mantra does not stack up.

The evidence, he said, suggests that larger local authorities are associated with higher spending per capita than smaller local units, and amalgamations can produce diseconomies of scale.

The city has also devised a formula that it says would provide for the payment, “in perpetuity”, of compensation to the county council for any rates losses arising out of a boundary extension.

Supporters of the single-authority approach argue that it will eliminate duplication of services, streamlining their delivery, with huge savings for the exchequer.

It has been argued that the ‘One Cork’ approach would provide for an appropriate governance structure that gives due recognition to the need for a strengthened focus on the development of Cork City, while recognising that the wider metropolitan Cork area is a significant driver of economic growth for the entire region.

However, the county council says it would be absolutely necessary to ensure that the remaining areas of the county, particularly those geographically at the periphery, would be an integral part of the overall governance structure, so that their vulnerabilities and their strengths to the local economy are equally provided for.

The last extension of Cork’s City boundary was secured in 1965.

Preliminary work on a boundary extension in 2006 included plans to raise the city’s size from 4,000 hectares to 22,359 hectares, and boost its population from 117,000 to 180,000, which would have seen areas in Kerry Pike and Killeens, Monard, Rathpeacon and Rathcooney, Glanmire, Riverstown, Glounthane and Little Island, Curraheen, Waterfall and Ballinora, Ballygarvan, Togher, Doughcloyne, the airport and business park, Douglas, Donnybrook, Grange, Rochestown, Passage, and Monkstown become part of the city.

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