Cork council merger review ‘fundamentally flawed’, says chief

Ann Doherty says Smiddy report fails to recognise different needs of urban and rural

File photograph of  Cork City Council Chief Executive Ann Doherty. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times.

File photograph of Cork City Council Chief Executive Ann Doherty. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times.

 

Cork City Council Chief Executive Ann Doherty said a review group report which recommended the merger of Cork city and county councils was “fundamentally flawed”, contained false promises and failed to recognise the very different needs of urban and rural communities.

Ms Doherty said the Cork Local Government Review Group report published on September 8th and welcomed by Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly was bereft of empirical evidence to support its majority recommendation that Cork would be best served by a single unitary authority.

According to the majority report backed by Chairman, Alf Smiddy, senior counsel John Lucey and former Kerry County Manager, Tom Curran, a merger between Cork city and county councils would produce significant economic growth which could not be achieved by a city boundary extension.

“There is no empirical evidence whatsoever for this assertion. Indeed all of the evidence based research would indicate a strong metropolitan city of circa 250,000-350,000 people promotes significant growth for itself but also has a profound impact on the economic health of its hinterland.”

Ms Doherty pointed out that much of the industrial wealth of the county is based on the periphery of the city in what can be described as Metropolitan Cork with many multi-national companies opting to locate there because of its proximity to the city.

She pointed out that this area contiguous to the city generates a net surplus of € 30 million per annum which Cork County Council uses to subsidise services in other parts of the county and in a merged scenario, Cork city could face seeing some of its revenue similarly channelled elsewhere.

Ms Doherty also rejected the LGRG report suggestion that a boundary extension is more complicated than a merger, especially one involving over 5,000 staff and it amazed her that people with no experience of public sector mergers have declared a merger is easier and better for Cork.

“Our conviction that a significantly expanded city boundary is the best solution for Cork is based on our evaluation of economic growth, service infrastructure, proper spatial planning, strategic development, the social needs of our citizens and the overall wellbeing of our city and county.”

Describing the Cork LGRG report as “fundamentally flawed”, Ms Doherty said that if its recommendations were implemented, it would mean “an end to Cork’s second city status” and would emasculate the city’s potential to act as a counter balance to Dublin and the east coast.

Turning to the assertion that Cork city will play a prominent role in the new merged council, Ms Doherty said that this was “a false promise” as Cork City Council would in fact be abolished as an independent decision making authority and instead become a division within the larger body.

“It is the first time that the city of Cork will no longer have an accountable democratic forum capable of making decisions in respect of its administrative areas and those who live within it .... this flies in the face of everything that local government is supposed to stand for,” she said.

Ms Doherty also pointed out that the merger recommendation was the result of a 3/2 split on the LGRG with UCC academics, Prof Dermot Keogh and Dr Theresa Reidy, both arguing for a city boundary extension which was published as a minority report in an appendix.

“This means that one single individual has decided that Cork City and County should be merged,” she said, adding that the haste with which the matter was being brought before Cabinet was also of concern as such an important decision should give cause for reflection as to its impact.

Ultimately, the Cork LGRG report fails to recognise the different needs of urban and rural communities and conflict can arise when a unitary body is asked to cater for their different needs in terms of service provisions and the allocation of resources, she said.

“The political representation which will result from a merger will guarantee a continuous tussle along the rural and urban divide for resources with inevitably one of those interests losing out and this is not the optimum solution for any local authority.”