THERE has been an enthusiastic welcome in the city for the report of the Expert Advisory Group on Local Government Arrangements in Cork in contrast to the outcry which greeted the last such report in September 2015 by the Cork Local Government Review (CLGR) Committee, chaired by businessman Alf Smiddy, which recommended that Cork City and County Councils should be merged as one large local authority. Two of the five members of that group dissented from its conclusions and produced their own minority report contradicting them.
However, the latest report, drawn up by the advisory group set up by Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Simon Coveney, last October, recommends that Cork should continue to have two local authorities – Cork City Council and Cork County Council. It recommends that the City Council area should be extended to include Ballincollig, Carrigrohane, Blarney, Glanmire, Carrigtwohill and the area around Cork Airport, giving it a total population of about 225,000, based on the 2016 Census figures.
However, while Cork County Council will remain the larger of the two local authorities, with a population of approximately 320,000, its revenues will be cut significantly – by up to a third – as it will be losing many lucrative rates-paying industries in the Cork Harbour area and this has upset Cork County Council’s Corporate Policy Group. After meeting last Friday to discuss the new report, the group expressed serious concerns about many of the overriding principles, as well as its lack of detail about how the extent of the boundary extension will be decided, and has sought further clarification.
The new 118-page report, compiled by an expert group headed by Scotland’s former chief planner Jim Mackinnon and including John O’Connor, former chairman of An Bórd Pleanála and current chairman of Eirgrid; Gillian Keating, former president and a board member of Cork Chamber, and Paul Martin, the chief executive and director of administration at Wandsworth Council in London, reviewed both the majority and minority elements of the Smiddy report with a brief to build consensus on future local governance of Ireland’s largest county and second-biggest city.
Most of the opposition to the merger of the two local authorities proposed by the Smiddy report came from the city side as it was feared that becoming part of one big local authority would undermine Cork’s second city status. Cork County Council welcomed the merger proposal, albeit with some councillors feeling that it was the lesser of two evils, and while they acknowledge that there are some positive aspects to the new report’s findings, they fear that they will lose out more from the city boundary extension proposal.
The County Council is disappointed that the advisory group’s report failed to address the ‘whole of Cork’ model of effective local governance it favours and described this as ‘a major missed opportunity.’ They would prefer to see themselves and Cork City Council operating on a joint statutory city and county basis serving the entirety of the region.
The two local authorities are now being asked to work together on the implementation of a proposed statutory Cork Metropolitan Area Plan for strategic economic development, housing and infrastructure issues affecting the wider Cork area, to be overseen by a board with equal representation from both the city and county, as well as business representatives. However, this seems to be for the more populous immediate environs of the city and one would hope that – while probably not the intention – it wouldn’t be at the expense of the far-flung rural areas of the county.
Welcoming the expert group’s report, Minister Coveney announced that he will be moving quickly to begin implementing it, while Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin wants speedy implementation also of the recommendations so that the necessary changes to boundaries are in place for the 2019 local elections. However, this should not be foisted on Cork County Council until they get the clarifications that they, justifiably, seek and are subsequently comfortable that their concerns have been adequately addressed.