ENVIRONMENT Minister Alan Kelly is no comedian. Although he had the nation in stitches with a gag about the Labour-Blueshirt coalition being the best government in the history of the State, his latest effort at evoking laughter – a plan to abolish local government in Cork city – has gone down like a lead balloon.
Kelly’s prank neither amused nor impressed Corkonians who are proud of belonging to an incorporated city with historic charters, boundaries and legal powers that go back to the twelfth century. Indeed the career politico profoundly shocked Cork with his undemocratic, anti-Leeside proposal, which is coming hot on the heels of his catastrophic handling of the water charges issue.
His dastardly plan for Cork County Council (a body established in 1889, notable for sheep dipping committees) to annex a city famous for its history and sense of identity is deeply offensive.
Here’s Kelly’s explanation: ‘This is about selecting the most appropriate system of local government for Cork city and county. Unifying the city and county structure in Cork should be considered in view of the potential benefits: such as strengthening local government, the elimination of administrative duplication, improved service delivery, greater efficiency, economies of scale and more cohesive and effective economic development’.
A crazy idea!
And here’s how an Irish Times editorial responded to Kelly’s raiméis: ‘The establishment of Cork City and County Council as a single local authority unit is a crazy idea’. Pulling no punches, the former ‘Old Lady of D’Olier Street’ reminded him that for a number of years the local authority auditor reported on ‘inadequate financial controls, poor value for money and weak compliance with public tendering rules in both Cork city and county’. It advised Kelly to focus on transparency and on the quality of public service in Cork.
Instead of a handover of the civic administration to the County Council, the newspaper recommended an expansion of city’s boundaries to include satellite towns; and that the boundary extension into the county should be accompanied by ‘higher-quality corporate governance from officials in both jurisdictions.’ Harsh, but on the ball!
Eighteen former Lord Mayors, including several Fine Gael and Labour mayors, agreed. They denounced Kelly’s proposal as ‘preposterous’, ‘unworkable’ and a ‘dangerous experiment’. They also bitterly criticised Cork County Council for having promoted a fifty-year resistance to any expansion of the city boundaries, and they described the Coalition plan to strip Cork City of its powers to self-govern, run its own affairs, set its own budget and ‘strategise for the future’ as an extraordinary proposition.
Cork city, they warned, would become a sort of municipal district with the same standing as a country town – and that was beyond belief. A city without power is not a city, they said.
The soul of Cork
Their definition of a city was interesting: ‘Cork city is not an abstract idea. It is a living, breathing, evolving organism that has an urban identity and an urban personality; it has shape and a soul. That is what makes cities special. Those who know and respect Cork City have no reason to be modest about its contribution, but now have every reason to be fearful for its future”.
We couldn’t put it better!
The First Citizens also took a slice off the Cork Chamber (of Commerce), which supported the merger. Taking advantage of the political turmoil, the Chamber opportunistically called for private sector-business involvement in the decision-making activities of the future County Council-dominated local authority.
In response, the 18 mayors disdainfully made clear that, unless local business operators were democratically elected, they had no mandate to intrude in areas where they had no remit. In simple terms they told the Chamber to get stuffed!
Threat to West Cork
Cork city isn’t the only place thrown into confusion by the Coalition’s machinations. Some months ago UCC academic, Aodh Quinlivan, warned of the knock-on effect a County Council takeover would have for West Cork which, he said, already was one of the most under-represented regions in the country following the abolition of town councils last year.
He said that FG-Labour had reduced the number of local authorities from 114 to 31 and, in the process, created one of the most disconnected systems of local governments in Europe. Local representation in the county fell from 156 to 55. He cautioned that a super-style County Council would make things worse.
‘In 2009, West Cork had 12 county councillors drawn from the Bantry and Skibbereen area, as well as 27 town councillors from Bantry, Clonakilty and Skibbereen. As a result of the so-called reforms in 2014, West Cork was now left with eight councillors serving a huge jurisdiction,’ commented Mr Quinlivan.
Merging Cork City and Cork County Council into one giant administration would not automatically lead to efficiencies, cost savings and economies of scale, and there was little evidence to support the idea, he said. ‘Larger unified local authorities are associated with higher costs per capita than smaller units. In addition, citizens feel disengaged from local government and are less satisfied with local services as you move towards large, unified authorities’.
So why are the Blueshirts and the Cloth Cap Brigade enthusiastically pushing the scheme? The answer is contained in a comment that Fine Gael’s Cllr Tim Lombard made to The Southern Star: ‘This is all about the finances and with this proposed merger we will have a rich local authority,’ he explained.
Simple. It’s all about the aggrandisement of Cork County Council, and we compliment the councillor for his candour on having said so. His observation was refreshingly devoid of Kelly-style baloney.
So, at what stage of development is Kelly’s undemocratic council amalgamation? According to Cllr Lombard, very advanced with a decision likely by September. But first Kelly has to go through the motions of taking seriously a report that he commissioned from a group set up to review the local government arrangements in Cork.
The group consists of five eminent and independent experts: former brewery boss Alf Smiddy; former Kerry County Manager Tom Curran; John Lucey SC, an expert in personal injuries litigation; historian Dermot Keogh and Theresa Reidy, a lecturer in UCC with a declared interest in ‘political behaviour’.
But here’s the good news. Whatever conclusion the illustrious group comes to, it may never be implemented. Why? Because a general election is on the cards and, in a few months’ time, voters are likely to boot Kelly into the political wilderness.
In an ironic twist, Tipperary North and Tipperary South constituencies have been merged into one constituency: the new five-seater Tipperary constituency. The redraw means all six sitting TDs will be contesting five seats – in other words it’s a classic example of the absorption of one entity by another!
Cork City may well have the last laugh!