Cork’s turf war: division, rivalry and emails
A proposal to make Cork city seven times bigger has local politicians vying for land and income
Fianna Fáil councillor Bob Ryan in Matey, Co Cork, the proposed new boundary of Cork city currently 17km from the city. Photograph: Provision
The hurlers’ strike in 2006 and Roy Keane in Saipan – Cork doesn’t often do splits but when it does it does them royally. A row over a proposed expansion of Cork city – the first since 1965 – has the potential to be as divisive and bitter as those two sporting controversies.
The current phase of the row relates to the publication in June by then minister for housing, planning and local government Simon Coveney of a report of the Expert Advisory Group on Local Government Arrangements in Cork chaired by former chief planner for Scotland Jim Mackinnon.
The review is the latest stage in a row that goes back to at least 2015, when then minister for the environment Alan Kelly appointed former Beamish and Crawford MD Alf Smiddy to carry out a review of local government in Cork.
Smiddy and two other members of the review group, senior counsel John Lucey and former Kerry county manager Tom Curran, recommended a merger of the two councils, but two other group members, Prof Dermot Keogh and Dr Theresa Reidy argued for an expansion of the city boundary.
The “majority” Smiddy report – the part recommending the merger – was welcomed by Cork County Council as it effectively recommended the absorption of Cork city into the county council. The city would become a municipal administrative division of the county – as west, north and south Cork already were.
However, the same report provoked uproar among elected members of Cork City Council. Cork City chief executive Ann Doherty described it as “fundamentally flawed”, and argued that Cork had to become a metropolitan city of 250,000 to drive economic growth in the region. Within weeks Cork City Council directed Doherty to seek a judicial review of the Smiddy report, which was subsequently shelved.
Political realities changed when Fine Gael ended up in a minority government reliant on Fianna Fáil after the 2016 general election.
Kelly’s successor, Simon Coveney, initially a supporter of the merger proposal, seemed attuned to the new political realities, and the need for the support of Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin, who opposed the merger. Coveney has since said the Mackinnon report is “politically saleable”.
The Mackinnon report proposes retaining both local authorities, but also an expansion of the city not only into county council areas contiguous to the city but much further afield. The new city would incorporate built up areas such as Douglas, Donnybrook, Grange, Frankfield and Rochestown, but also Ballincollig, Blarney and Carrigtwohill.
County councillors were shocked at the scale of the proposal, which would see the city increase seven times from 37.81sq km to 280sq km, and its population rise from 127,000 to 225,000.
Mackinnon pointed out that many people in those districts worked in Cork: 82 per cent of 6,760 working residents of Ballincollig, 62 per cent in Blarney and 58.7 per cent in Carrigtwohill commute to work in the city.
Few county councillors would dispute that it makes sense for the city to expand to built-up parts of the county
The Mackinnon report angered many county councillors. Fianna Fáil’s Bob Ryan from Tower captured the mood when he said: “If this document was produced under British rule it would have brought about revolution, and it should. This is a diktat we can’t accept.”
Cork County Council, in its first official response from then mayor of Cork county Séamus McGrath and chief executive Tim Lucey, said “the proposed boundary extension is excessive, and involves the city taking in areas which are rural and not city areas”.
Few county councillors would dispute that it makes sense for the city to expand to built-up parts of the county – areas such as Rochestown, Frankfield, Grange and Palmbury. Private estates have spread across the southern hills overlooking the city for over 20 years.
Fine Gael councillor Deirdre Forde from Rochestown, who represents this area, does not get the same sense of opposition to the Mackinnon report that her colleagues in Ballincollig and Carrigtwohill report.
“I’ve got very little feedback to Mackinnon that was negative – in Douglas, for example, the city line is the Tramore river, and some people already assume they are in the city, so it’s not like Ballincollig or Carrigtwohill or Blarney where I don’t think they would identify as readily with the city.
“I think in places like Rochestown and Frankfield people are more concerned with getting the level of service than who delivers it – it’s not high up in their consciousness. I’m not saying people don’t want to stay in the county but it’s not a big issue for them once services are maintained.”
That view contrasts strongly with that of Ryan from Tower, a hamlet west of Blarney which expanded in the 1990s. He has yet to find anyone in favour of the Mackinnon expansion, which would bring the city boundary into the heart of rural parishes like Inniscarra.
“People here are astonished because if Mackinnon goes ahead it’s going to split parishes like Inniscarra and Blarney – they all have strong sporting clubs, and rural Ireland is built on that loyalty to a sense of place, and what Mackinnon is proposing is going to divide all these parishes.
“We all accept the city boundary must extend but this is excessive. The fear we have is the effect it will have on our rate base – I represent a predominantly rural electoral area and our concern is the impact that expanding the city will have on our ability to provide services such as roads and water.”
While many county councillors have accused the city of a land grab – something city councillors vehemently deny – the practical implications for both local authorities are as much financial as territorial.
The impact Mackinnon could have on places as far from Cork city as Meelin in north Cork and Goleen in west Cork stems from the fact that for decades the county council has used the 50 per cent of its revenue raised in south Cork to subsidise services in less developed north Cork and west Cork.
South Cork includes the industrialised zones at Little Island (within the Mackinnon expansion area) and Ringaskiddy (outside the Mackinnon expansion area) as well Cork airport and extensive middle-class suburbs outside the city.
Both the Smiddy and Mackinnon reports refer to the financial implications of expansion but only in a general way, with Smiddy suggesting that an expansion of the city (which it rejects) would result in a loss of revenue of between €27 million and €36 million depending on where exactly the boundary is drawn.
Mackinnon goes so far as to suggest that Cork City Council should pay €40 million a year for 10 years in compensation to the county. The area in question generates €86 million a year in revenue, minus €46 million it spends on service provision in the area.
But – like every aspect of this story – the finances are the subject of debate. A Cork City Council source says the Mackinnon figure of the €40 million per annum loss to the county council is based on the minority Smiddy report expansion, which includes Carrigaline, Ringaskiddy, Monkstown and Passage, which Mackinnon excludes from his extension. Therefore, the source says, the figure should be less.
The current mayor of Co Cork, Declan Hurley, claims Cork City Council would not be able to spend the same money per head of population in a Mackinnon city as it currently does: €1,363 in the city compared to the county’s €737.
And a Cork City Hall source says the county’s figures do not give a true picture as the €737 is an average across the county, and the provision of services in the suburban areas involved spending of €297 per capita and would not be as big a drain on city funds as the county council is suggesting.
Meanwhile, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Tony Fitzgerald, reminded county suburban dwellers in Rochestown, Grange and Frankfield that their local property tax was being used by Cork County Council to fund services in north and west Cork.
“Data shows that much revenue generated in these de facto city suburbs and satellite towns is diverted to fund services in more remote parts of the county with lower populations, whereas Cork City Council believes rates and taxes should be spent where they are raised.”
Since Mackinnon was published the debate has become more heated, with Cork County Council taking the surprising step of offering to cede land to Cork City Council that would see the city expand in area by 84.5 per cent to 69.76sq km and in population by 31.2 per cent to 164,915.
Under this county council offer the city would expand to include Doughcloyne, Frankfield, Grange Donnybrook, Castletreasure and Rochestown on the southside and Kilbarry, Kilcully and Ballyvolane on the north side – but not Ballincollig, Blarney, Glanmire, Little Island or Carrigtwohill.
Cork City Council has rejected the offer, saying it is not possible to reconcile the county council offer with “the principles and rationale” of the Mackinnon report which have been accepted by Government.
That rejection by the city led last week to Cork County Council formally making the offer of territory to the city under section 29 of the Local Government Act. This requires the county council to embark on a public consultation process with affected communities.
Whatever deal is reached it will have to be agreeable not just to Eoghan Murphy but also Micheál Martin
Fianna Fáil city councillor Tim Brosnan accuses the county council of making the offer as a stalling exercise to prevent a group appointed by Minister for Local Government Eoghan Murphy from finalising a boundary extension.
Whatever Cork County Council’s motivation, the section 29 offer is likely to slow down the implementation of the Mackinnon report, and while some city councillors have urged the county to engage with Mackinnon as “the only show in town” it may not be a fait accompli.
The reality is that national politics will also have a part to play. Whatever deal is reached it will have to be agreeable not just to Eoghan Murphy but also Micheál Martin.
Several sources, both political and business, view what Cork County Council has offered so far as simply its opening pitch. It is expected that “an improved offer” to cede more territory to the city will be made over the coming months, but any such deal will have to be endorsed at Cabinet level.
“I can see a lot of horse trading yet,” says one observer. “All the south side suburbs will go into the city and maybe the airport too, which is worth about €5 million in revenue, as the county might concede on that if the city really pushed for it in terms of the prestige and status it would bring.
“Glanmire and all to the west of the N8 could all go into the city, along with all the land inside the proposed Northern Ring Road, but I see Carrigtwohill staying in the county, while I reckon there will be a contest over Ballincollig and to a lesser extent Blarney – it’s going to be very interesting.”
Former Lord Mayor of Cork Cllr Chris O’Leary of Sinn Féin has called into question the validity of the majority Smiddy report, alleging that information obtained under a Freedom of Information request suggests that senior civil servants had a view in favour of a merger of the two councils.
O’Leary told The Irish Times it was clear to him from emails obtained under an FOI request that senior officials in the then Dept of Environment were in favour of a merger of Cork city and county councils, rather than a boundary extension for the city.
According to O’Leary, emails between department officials and Cork Local Government Review chairman Alf Smiddy suggest the officials were keen to counter any arguments made for a boundary extension and to push the merger option.
“They already had a strategy . . . 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.
In one email exchange between Paul Lemass and Denis Conlan at the Department and Smiddy, Lemass observes that the costs associated with a merger would be “nothing like the transactional costs associated with a boundary extension”.
Conlan in turn emailed Smiddy later that same day, February 9th 2015, and observed that “the recent article by Aodh Quinlivan prompted us to try and set out coherently the potential benefits to be achieved from a local authority merger”.
The emails continue until virtually the eve of publication, with Conlan suggesting to Smiddy on August 27th that he should add that “a boundary extension with the retention of two local authorities would fail to maximise potential benefits of local government reorganisation in Cork”.
Smiddy has strongly rejected that there was anything preordained about his report and said he and his committee approached the issue with an open mind and were not influenced in any way by the views or correspondence he received from Department of Environment officials.
“At the very outset, in mid-January 2015 the Department made it quite clear that they did not have any preference, and asked us to approach our work with all the necessary rigour, and that it was entirely up to the committee to report as they saw fit,” said Smiddy.
“Merger and/or boundary extension were both on the cards from day one, and it seems to have surprised some people that both options had to be seriously examined by my committee as per the very specific terms of reference.
Smiddy said the review was approached from the outset with “totally independent minds” and “there was certainly no pre-judging of the outcome, and indeed the final position was only reached after careful consideration, analysis and dissemination of all of the evidence”.