Eoghan Murphy defends department over handling of proposed Cork councils merger

Minister rejects allegation department officials were pushing a pro-merger position

Eoghan Murphy said he expects the issue of local government reform in Cork to be finalised within weeks. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Eoghan Murphy said he expects the issue of local government reform in Cork to be finalised within weeks. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy has defended his department officials over their handling of proposed local government reform in Cork.

His defence comes amid accusations that they were pushing a pro-merger agenda during the initial Smiddy review.

Mr Murphy strongly rejected an allegation by former Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr Chris O’Leary that correspondence he obtained under a Freedom of Information request clearly showed department officials had a clear preference for a merger of Cork city and county councils over a city boundary extension.

Cllr O’Leary, who was lord mayor in 2015 when the then minister for the environment Alan Kelly set up a review under the chairmanship of business consultant, Alf Smiddy, said it was clear that department officials favoured the merger option from the outset.

According to Cllr O’Leary, the emails that he obtained showed that department officials clearly favoured Cork following the same merger route as Limerick and Waterford, where city and county councils had merged, and in Tipperary where north and south ridings also had merged.

Emails

He said emails being sent back and forth between department officials and Mr Smiddy from February 2015 clearly suggested the officials were keen to counter any arguments made for the retention of two authorities and a boundary extension to the city and to instead push the merger option.

“They already had a strategy outlined in the emails that they were looking towards a finding for a merger and they were very quick to seek to counter opinion pieces by academics like Aodh Quinlivan and Will Brady from UCC arguing for a boundary extension to the city,” he said.

But speaking in Cork on Friday, Mr Murphy strongly rejected such an allegation, insisting that department officials had simply sought to provide information to Mr Smiddy and his review group and did not seek to impose their own views on the group.

“The department officials did not push a pro-merger agenda. That is not what’s reflected (in the correspondence). The officials are there to help with the work that needs to be done,” said Mr Murphy when questioned about the emails during a visit to Bishopstown in Cork city.

Mr Murphy said that he expected that the issue of local government reform in Cork would be finalised within weeks as an oversight implementation group set up to implement the subsequent Mackinnon report continues to meet with Cork city and county council officials.

In contrast to the Smiddy majority report which argued for a merge, the MacKinnon report proposed the retention of two separate local authorities and an expansion of the city which would increase its size from 37.81 sq km to 280 sq km and its population from 127,000 to 225,000.

‘Land grab’

However the huge expansion, which would see the city extend to include not just contiguous suburbs such as Rochestown, Frankfield and Grange but also satellite towns like Ballincollig, Blarney and Carrigtwohill, has led to strong opposition from members of Cork County Council.

Several members of Cork County Council have accused the city council of “a land grab” to acquire the rate rich areas surrounding the city currently administered by the county - a contention rejected by city councillors who have urged Cork County Council to accept the Mackinnon expansion.

Mr Murphy refused to be drawn on whether the Mackinnon boundary is set in stone or whether it is up for negotiation and he instead argued that the Mackinnon implementation oversight group should be given time to do its work despite obvious tensions between city and county.

“We have our report (Mackinnon), we have a committee that’s doing it works and I think it’s important we give it a bit of space and time to continue to do that work and it’s very important that we come to a resolution on this within the next couple of weeks,” he said.

“We need to get this resolved shortly because a lot of other things are depending on having this issue resolved so we can move on to other aspects of local government reform that we want to do (such as) empowering local authorities and empowering local systems of government.”