Myths are interesting things. As the writer Joseph Campbell once said, ‘myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.’ Many myths exist in Ireland about local government. I asked a class of students in UCC last week how many local councils we have in Ireland.
The lowest estimate was 100, the highest was 300. I explained that we have only 31 local councils in the country and the number could drop to 29 if mergers go ahead in Cork and Galway. The fact is that the current government reduced the number of local authorities in the country by 73% in one fell swoop, bringing us from 114 to 31.
Even with 114 local councils we had the second most disconnected system of local government in Europe.
Another myth is the ‘Big is Beautiful’ one which arrogantly assumes that merging two local authorities into one will automatically lead to efficiencies, cost savings and economies of scale.
We might intuitively feel that merging two local authorities into one would automatically lead to efficiencies but there is very little evidence to support this. I have reviewed and researched more than 400 worldwide case studies of local government amalgamations and the clear conclusion is that the common folklore of ‘big is better and more efficient’ is not borne out by the research.
In fact, what the research tells us is that often amalgamations produce diseconomies of scale and larger unified local authorities are associated with higher costs per capita than smaller units. In addition, citizens feel dis-engaged from local government and are less satisfied with local services as you move towards large, unified authorities.
In Cork, the Boundary Review Group has been asked to consider two options: (1) if the city boundary should be extended; (2) if the city and county councils should be merged. I see no merit in the first option. However, a significant boundary extension is required as the current demarcation line makes no sense and is outdated.
The city boundary needs to be extended to encompass a population in the region of 250,000-300,000 which would put Cork in a more competitive position and in the company of more appropriate mid-sized European cities and regions. The county would retain a population of 230,000-250,000 and would be the largest county council outside Dublin. The county would benefit financially from not having to provide services to urbanised areas such as Togher, Doughcloyne, Douglas and Rochestown. Rather it can focus on its own more appropriate jurisdiction and develop its strengths in tourism, agriculture and maritime etc. If we do this right, we can emerge with a strong city council and a strong county council. Key to this would be the development of an effective second tier, based on the municipal district ‘town and hinterland’ model. Currently the municipal districts are merely glorified area committees of the county. We need to beef them up with direct elections and real powers in terms of revenue-raising and planning.
The abolition of town councils was ill-advised, leading to local representation in the county falling from 156 to 55. In 2009, West Cork had 12 county councillors drawn from the Bantry and Skibbereen LEAs as well as 27 town councillors from Bantry, Clonakilty and Skibbereen. As a result of the so-called reforms in 2014, West Cork was left with eight councillors serving a huge jurisdiction. I respect the views expressed by Mayor Alan Coleman in last week’s Southern Star but I believe growth, economic development and a stronger airport authority are not dependant on a local authority merger.
Dr Aodh Quinlivan is a lecturer in politics at UCC where he specialises in local government. He lives in Kilmurry.