Expansion of Cork city ‘will lead to merger of councils’

Alf Smiddy warns new proposals will affect county’s rate base and ability to fund services

An expert report recommendation to allow the expansion of Cork city into parts of Cork county will affect the council's rate base so significantly that it will ultimately lead to the amalgamation of the two local authorities, the chairman of a previous review group has warned.

Alf Smiddy chaired a 2015 review of local government in Cork and issued a majority report recommending the merger of Cork City Council and Cork County Council into a single local authority, but the plan proved highly controversial and was subsequently shelved.

Mr Smiddy warned that the recommendations of the new report would see Cork County Council forfeiting a significant portion of its rate base, resulting in the council no longer being able to transfer funds from rate rich areas near the city to fund services in rural areas.

The new report, which follows a review chaired by former chief planner for Scotland, Jim Mackinnon, recommends the retention of two separate local authorities, but with Cork city being granted a boundary extension into areas of the county.

Cork city would expand to include Douglas, Donnybrook, Grange, Frankfield, Rochestown, Ballincollig, Tower, Blarney, Rathpeacon, Glanmire, Little Island and Carrigtwohill but would not incorporate Passage West, Monkstown, Carrigaline or Ringaskiddy.

The report proposes that Cork City Council would pay €40 million per year for 10 years to Cork County Council to compensate for the loss of revenue from local property tax and commercial rates which it would lose.

Mr Smiddy welcomed the Mackinnon report’s recognition that the existing situation is no longer tenable. However, he described the proposal as “a suboptimal political solution in the context of fragile minority government that needs to be looked at very closely”.

“If this report is to be fully embraced, I see it as phase one to a full Cork Council merger, as the hit to the rate base of Cork County Council could threaten its very survival which will ultimately force full amalgamation,” said Mr Smiddy.

Mr Smiddy said the report contained no detailed analysis of the implication of the land transfer for Cork County Council in terms of the impact on its ability to raise funds to support its services to communities across the county.

He said Minister for Housing Simon Coveney had done "a very good job in presenting it as a compromise political solution to try and move things on" but he had serious concerns about the lack of a clear and detailed timeline for its implementation.

“Minister Coveney said it will be very challenging to implement and if it can’t be achieved for the local elections of 2019, then 2024 would be a timeframe which he seemed to suggest would also be acceptable but I think the whole project is dead if it stretches out as far as 2024,” he said.

However, the Mackinnon report recommendations were broadly welcomed by the Green Party with its spokesman on political reform, Oliver Moran from Cork North Central, saying "the move away from the wrongheaded notion of a 'super council' is for the good".

“This report recognises the importance of developing cities as economic and cultural hubs. That’s to the benefit of both the city and the county region. Cities are dynamos. They drive economic and culture life and the county region will benefit from a vibrant city too,” said Mr Moran.

He said the Greens were disappointed that the report recommends against a directly elected mayor, which the party believes would bring "a real energy" to Ireland's regional cities like Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.