Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Simon Coveney, has revealed that he hopes to make progress on getting consensus on local government reform in Cork later this year once he has addressed a number of national issues.
Mr Coveney told Cork’s 96FM at the weekend that his immediate focus is on issues such as waste, water and housing but that he believes he will be in position to make progress on council reform in Cork possibly as early as September.
“What I said to people who are interested in this project - and there are people who are deeply interested in this project - is that we will try to make significant progress in September, October, November to try and find a way forward,” said Mr Coveney.
Mr Coveney said that he believed reform was required in Cork to better represent both city and county and help the region achieve its potential as a counter weight for development to Dublin and the east coast.
Speaking earlier this year to The Irish Times, Mr Coveney said the existing local Government structures in Cork were not delivering for either the city or the county but he believed that it is possible to build a consensus between city and county to achieve reform.
Mr Coveney's predecessor in the Department, Alan Kelly, set up a review group in January 2015 to look at the issue under the chairmanship of former Beamish and Crawford MD, Alf Smiddy and it issued its report last September.
The review saw Mr Smiddy and fellow review members, senior counsel John Lucey and former Kerry County manager Tom Curran, recommend the merger of Cork City Council and Cork County Council into a single unitary authority with the city operating as division within the new structure.
However fellow review members, UCC academics, historian Prof Dermot Keogh and political scientist, Dr Theresa Reidy dissented and issued a minority report recommendation that the two local authorities be retained with Cork City Council allowed to expand its jurisdiction into the county.
The Smiddy Report's recommendation for a merger proved highly divisive with Cork City Council strongly opposing it to the point that members instructed Cork City Council CEO, Ann Doherty, to see legal advice to see if it was possible to judicially review the report.
Cork County Council, in contrast, broadly welcomed it, as did county council management, but business interests were also divided. Cork Chamber backed the merger while the city-based Cork Business Association came out strongly in favour of retaining two separate authorities.
Speaking to The Irish Times shortly after his appointment to his new portfolio, Mr Coveney acknowledged the Smiddy Report and its majority recommendation for merger had proven divisive but he believed it was possible to achieve a consensus with some straight talking from all sides.
He said: “What I am saying is that I’m not wedded to the Smiddy Report. I think it should be the basis for the conversation that we now need to have but it doesn’t necessarily determine what the outcome should be so I am going to try and build consensus between city and county on a new approach.
"I want to have some pretty honest and blunt conversations now with the management of both local authorities and also the elected representatives on both local authorities and other stakeholders in both the city and county such as Cork Chamber and the Cork Business Association and others.
“I’m pretty confident that it is possible to put a compromise position that everyone can be reasonably happy with and if it’s going to work everybody has to buy into it. It will take a bit of time but I know the personalities pretty well and I don’t believe the challenge is insurmountable.”
“And I am going to give that some time but I am not simply going to avoid this because it’s an awkward political issue - I think it is possible to design a solution that the city and county can live with and both will work towards that can provide better outcomes than we have at the moment.”