Tuesday, 22 September 2015
Topical Issue Debate
Local Government Reform
In the brief time available to me, I would like to articulate my view that the majority conclusion of the Smiddy report is fundamentally wrong in terms of the future of Cork City Council and Cork County Council. I happen to agree with the thrust of the minority grouping report, which is that cities drive regions. I think the amalgamation of Cork city and county councils would have a very negative impact on the capacity of the region to attract foreign direct investment into the future. I am particularly in favour of a governance structure for the city that would be focused on the development of the city in the cultural, economic and social spheres. I think the solution that has come forward is an unworkable one. I believe the Minister, Deputy Kelly, was unduly hasty in accepting this particular proposal. I note that one of his colleagues on the Government benches, Deputy Ciarán Lynch, has strongly criticised the officials in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. He has blamed that Department for the momentum towards the amalgamation process.
I disagreed with the decision of the Minister's predecessor, Phil Hogan, to abolish town councils. I still disagree with it. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, displayed breathtaking cynicism when he arrived on the scene and said that the decision to get rid of the urban and town councils was a bad mistake and that he would reinstate them if he had his way all over again. He suggested that the Labour Party might even consider reinstating them in a new Government. For how long more will the public be treated to this kind of theatrics and be taken for fools? This whole agenda is politically driven. The Minister, Deputy Kelly, has clearly driven this particular agenda in relation to Cork. I happen to know from talking to people in Kilkenny that the amalgamation of city and county is not working there.
It is not working in Waterford. The people of Waterford city are very upset about the declining capacity of the urban centre of the city to market itself. I refer the Minister to the submission to the review panel that was made by William Brady, Jonathan Hall and Brendan O'Sullivan of the UCC department of planning. I do not believe they had discussions with the review panel. They have spoken publicly and in detail about how they believe the recommendations will not work. They have emphasised the need for Cork to concentrate on carving out a niche urban identity, as its competitors are doing. They suggest that this urban identity will be lost if the merger goes ahead. They have said that the second challenge is to maintain an identity with Cork's large rural agriculture and food sectors. They suggest that the towns, villages and coastal communities must equally be considered. They believe there needs to be a rural counterweight to represent these citizens.
Fundamentally, the planning people in UCC are saying that this will provide the worst of both worlds: an oversized and unworkable entity that will never be able to meet fully the needs of the two core constituencies.
Unfortunately, some of my time has gone, but I would agree with everything that Deputy Martin has said. There is no doubt that this is fundamentally wrong for Cork. Like Deputy Martin, I believe this is being driven by the Minister, Deputy Kelly. He arrived down to Cork the night before a press conference. He called people in when he was down in Carrigaline. He asked them to attend the press conference the following day and to row in behind the decision that had been made.
The Minister has pushed this agenda since this report came out. I remind the House that the report was only passed on the basis of the chairperson's casting vote. In an unprecedented step, the CEO of Cork City Council came out and outlined the reasons this should not happen. I accept that the chief executive of Cork County Council, Tim Lucey, is now saying he is in favour of it. Just two years ago, when he was the chief executive of Cork City Council, he was saying the best option for Cork was to look at a boundary extension. He was producing maps and writing to the Department to urge those responsible to get off their backsides and look at extending the city boundary.
Now we have a situation where Cork City Council is taking legal action. The council has directed the chief executive to take legal action through a section 140. It has been debated a number of times in Cork City Council and there is total agreement in the council regarding this issue.
Cork County Council has not even debated the issue in public yet. The council has not even debated the issue in public and the Minister is determined to bring it to Cabinet and push it through as quickly as possible.
I thank the Deputies for their question. The timing is optimal because this topic is being debated a lot at present. I established the Cork local government committee on 15 January 2015 to carry out a review of local government arrangements in Cork city and county, including the boundary of Cork city and to make recommendations with respect to whether the boundary of the city should be altered or whether Cork City Council and Cork County Council should be unified.
Since receiving the report on 2 September 2015 I have had an opportunity to consider it and on 8 September 2015, after a lot of analysis, I signalled my agreement with its main recommendation to establish a new unified Cork local authority. I am persuaded that a unified local authority for Cork has the potential to achieve important benefits, above all strengthening local government. Other anticipated benefits include eliminating administrative duplication, securing greater efficiency through economies of scale, promoting economic and social development and, ultimately, improving service delivery. The case for unification rests primarily in stronger more effective local government speaking with one voice that can deliver a much better future for the people of Cork in terms of social and economic progress and quality of life and I presume that is what we all desire.
However, I would like to stress that the model that is being proposed for Cork involves more than just a merger as in the cases of Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford, which are working well. I know this because I am representative of one of those counties. The report points out that there would be a strong case for major devolution of powers to what would be by far the largest unit of local government within the State. Fragmentation and weak local government structures have inhibited devolution up to now. Stronger, more coherent local authorities can help to reverse this and reduce centralisation. The report also sees scope for stronger leadership of a new authority and I see a continued role for the Lord Mayor of Cork in providing civic leadership and underlining the status, customs and traditions of the city, of which I am well aware.
Since publication, much has been made in public commentary of the fact that the report was a "majority" report. However, this masks important aspects about which the committee was in full agreement, for example, the conclusion that retaining the status quo is not a realistic option and the need to acknowledge and develop Cork city as a driving force in the economic and social development of the region. The requirement for a new enlarged metropolitan area was also a matter of agreement but the committee differed on how best to achieve such an extension. I believe a boundary extension while maintaining two authorities would really mean the city taking a substantial share of the county's population and resources, with implications for the future viability of the county. Equally, the suggestion that Cork city would suffer economically or socially in a unified authority is simply not well founded.
It is essential that there is a clear overall vision for Cork and an approach that will achieve added value and strengthen local government. Unification can, I believe, achieve all of the benefits of addressing the boundary issue while avoiding the disadvantages and complexities for both authorities which would arise with extending the city boundary only. A unified authority with improved strategic capacity can act as a leader and facilitator of change to support and develop Cork and the wider region in social, economic and environmental terms and can facilitate the delivery of efficient and effective customer services through innovative local government.
I remind the House that, in signalling my agreement with the main recommendation to establish a unified authority rather than simply extending the city boundary, I indicated that I would give further consideration to all of the details in the report. A considerable amount of work remains to be done to develop further the committee's high-level recommendation. The detail of what a unified system of local government in Cork would involve needs to be fully developed, including governance arrangements, functions, arrangements to maintain the status of the city and indeed addressing, as necessary, issues raised in the minority report. I will be making a submission to Government on the approach to be followed in light of this further consideration.
Cork County Council and Cork City Council worked exceptionally well in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, in terms of the land use and transportation study. Officials in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government confirmed that. It was an exemplar in terms of how to do planning. That was followed by CASP, the Cork Area Strategic Plan, another excellent model in terms of how to do planning and proving that there can be efficient, harmonised synergies between two local authorities serving side by side. Historically, the attraction of FDI into the city and county has worked, in terms of the pharmaceutical industry, for example, in the Lower Harbour, Ringaskiddy and across the county and with technology companies such as Apple and EMC. This is all mythology, the idea that a new unified structure will somehow create a Nirvana and give a better outcome. The proof of the pudding lies in the fact that very significant results have been achieved in key macro areas. The waste water treatment development plan, for example, for Little Island came out of synergies, as did the main water drainage scheme, with massive investment by both county and city. At the heart of this----
I agree with Deputy Kieran Lynch on one point. I do not know whether he has spoken to the Minister or not. So far he has absolved the Minister of any criticism but has blamed everyone else. I accept his point that fundamentally there is an anti-politician attitude at the core of this. Let us abolish politicians. It is like that headline that Fine Gael had with regard to the Seanad election----
I agree with everything Deputy Martin has said. There is a number of falsehoods being put out there by independent people who are in favour of it and I will point them out to the Minister. The chief executive of Cork City Council, Ann Doherty, has taken the unprecedented step of releasing a statement in order to debunk some of the myths, one of which is the assertion that a merger would produce significant economic growth while a boundary extension would not. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support that assertion. In fact evidence-based research in other areas indicates that a very strong metropolitan city of between 250,000 and 350,000 promotes significant growth in itself and also has a profound impact on its surrounding hinterland. These are the types of issues which need to be discussed.
The consultation period was extended by a week and only one political party in Cork put forward a submission.
I wish to quote something to the Deputies:
I do not want Cork to repeat the mistakes of other Cities with the result of a continuous urban sprawl at the expense of an identifiable city centre core... I believe that the option of a major extension to the City boundary, while retaining two separate authorities would not be the optimum recommendation. There would be a real concern about funding base available to the County authority in that scenario... In my view, the most convincing case can be made for a single Cork authority with a robust divisional structure.
That is the view of Deputy Martin's own party colleague, from the same constituency, in an article for The Examiner, Deputy Michael McGrath.
It is the best option for Cork. The group of five individuals considered the matter for nine months and I respect the report it produced. Its objective is to put Cork in a position in which it can compete on a regional basis with the conurbation around Dublin. That is what has been proposed. I stand fully behind the proposal and commend Alf Smiddy and his group on the work they did. Incidentally, they agreed on many issues, including that doing nothing would be the worst scenario.