Why Cork should resist attempts to merge councils
Former mayors are right: merger would seal Cork’s fate as a second-tier city
Cork City Hall: given that the city’s governance dates back to the 12th century, it would be an act of folly of historic proportions for the Smiddy committee to recommend amalgamation of the city and county. Photograph: Getty Images.
It is surely unprecedented in the history of this State that no less than 18 former mayors, from all shades of the political spectrum, would join together in defence of their city, in a rearguard action to prevent it being absorbed by its rural hinterland. What’s at stake, as they know very well, is the future of Cork.
Last January, Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly appointed a statutory committee chaired by former Beamish & Crawford boss Alf Smiddy to carry out an “objective review” of possible local government arrangements in Cork, including a boundary extension for the city or, alternatively, amalgamation of the city and county councils.
The merger idea is gaining traction, and that’s what has the former mayors so exercised. That the Republic’s second city would be “divested of its essential powers to self-govern, to run its own affairs, to set its own budgets and to strategise for the future is an extraordinary proposition . . . simply preposterous,” as they put it.
Warning that “a city without power is not a city”, the former mayors – including Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin – said: “Cork city, with its rich social and economic history, would be relegated to ‘divisional status’ within a single county authority, a type of municipal district with the same standing as a country town . . . This is beyond belief.”
All cities are engines of economic development for their regions (not the other way around) and Cork city has been performing this role in the southwest “for centuries”, they pointed out, arguing that only an “enlarged Cork city, with a full range of powers” had the potential to be a “counter-magnet to the ever-increasing pull of Dublin.”
Unfortunately, as the former mayors noted, Cork County Council had “steadfastly resisted the expansion of Cork city for 50 years”, with the result that much of metropolitan Cork is located in the county area. This has artificially reduced the size of the city, such that its paltry population of 119,000 puts it in 584th place among European cities.
The chamber’s submission asserts that “few countries have explicit policies for second-tier cities and regions” without providing any evidence to back this up. It mentions the UK example of developing Manchester as a counter-pole to London, but nobody in their right mind would advocate that Manchester City Council should be abolished.
In Ireland, however, amalgamations have already taken place in Tipperary, Limerick and Waterford under local government “reforms” spearheaded by Phil Hogan when he was minister for the environment. But whatever about Tipperary, the city status of both Limerick and Waterford has been dented by the influx of rural-based councillors.
Cork Business Association, which largely represents city centre retailers, is emphatically against merging Cork city and county councils. Instead, it wants to see the city boundary extended to encompass the entire metropolitan area with a population of 260,000 – putting it in line to reach 500,000 by 2050, based on current growth projections.
Given that the Smiddy committee may favour a single unified authority when it reports next month, Claire Nash, the association’s president, fears that “we are now sleepwalking into radical new governance arrangements that will emasculate the city, dilute its status, and grievously affect the dynamic that drives economic development”.
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“Businesses in the city better wise up to the reality that unless the idea of a single authority is binned, they are facing a future with a plethora of elected representatives and impenetrable bureaucracy,” Nash wrote. Describing it as a “horror story in the making”, she said a merged authority would be the antithesis of accountable governance.
Claire Nash is right, and so are Cork’s former mayors. Given that Cork’s governance as a city dates back to the 12th century, it would be an act of folly of historic proportions for the Smiddy committee to recommend amalgamation of the city and county.
That would simply seal its fate as an underperforming, second-tier city, compared to Dublin.