The advisory group examining local government reform in Cork needs to come up with proposals in the first six months of this year to allow preparations to be made in time for the 2019 local elections, according to Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney.
Mr Coveney said he expected the advisory group chaired by former chief planner for Scotland Jim Mackinnon to report back by the end of February after they examined both the majority and minority reports prepared by a previous group chaired by former Beamish & Crawford MD Alf Smiddy.
“I think it needs to be done well in advance of the 2019 local elections,” he said. “So that means moving on it in the first half of this year – now, all of the changes won’t have happened, but the commitment will be that the next time we have local government elections, a new structure will apply.”
The issue of local government reform proved highly divisive when, in September 2015, the Smiddy group issued a majority report calling for the merger of the two councils with a minority report arguing for the retention of two councils and the expansion of the city council into the county.
The Smiddy report – commissioned by Mr Coveney's predecessor, Labour's Alan Kelly – was shelved in the run-up to the 2016 general election but Mr Coveney appointed a new advisory group chaired by Mr Mackinnon in October 2016 to review the full Smiddy dossier.
The new group’s terms of reference include examining local government leadership at executive and political levels as well as looking at the possibility of establishing an office of a directly elected mayor and the potential for devolving some powers from central government to the local authorities.
However, unlike the Smiddy group, the Mackinnon group has also been asked to consider the strategic role of Cork city as a regional growth centre and the governance required to safeguard or enhance the metropolitan interests of the city and maintain its identity.
Mr Coveney acknowledged the changed political reality since the Smiddy report was published, with the new Fine Gael-led minority Government reliant on the agreement of Fianna Fáil whose leader, Micheál Martin is opposed to any merger of the Cork councils.
Mr Coveney said that whatever the Mackinnon group recommended – merger, expansion of Cork City Council or some other alternative – would need the support, or at least lack of opposition, from Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. The latter are also on record as opposing any plan to merge the two councils.
“First and foremost we need to do the right thing for Cork city and county and the way I will approach this is not by trying to keep Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin happy, although ultimately if we can do that, it means we can introduce whatever reform is proposed,” he said.
“I am not foolish enough to try and ram something through against the will of the majority of parties in the Dáil – the last thing I want is to have a proposal that is going to result in Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin coming together with a counter proposal – I won’t do anything if that’s the case.
“But I would like to think we can put something together that makes such a strong case that Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin will support what we want to do. My job is to make sure whatever reform is proposed is politically saleable because it is going determine Cork’s future for the next 30 years.”