Wednesday, 23 September 2015
Local Government Reform
I thank Senator Bradford for raising this issue because it gives me an opportunity to update the House on the matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.
As members are aware, the Minister 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, the Minister has had an opportunity to consider it and on 8 September 2015 he signalled his agreement with its main recommendation to establish a new unified Cork local authority. The Minister is persuaded that a unified local authority for Cork has the potential to achieve important benefits, above all strengthening local government. Other anticipated advantages 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. However, it is important to stress that the model that is being proposed for Cork involves more than just a merger, as in the case of Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. For example, 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 a continued role is envisaged for the Lord Mayor of Cork in providing civic leadership and underlining the status, customs and traditions of the city.
Since publication, much has been made in public commentary of the fact that this is a majority report. However, this portrayal masks important aspects about which the committee was in full agreement, for example, the conclusion that retaining the status quois not a realistic option and the need to acknowledge and develop Cork city as a driving force in 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 this. 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 within a unified authority is not well founded. It is essential that there be a clear overall vision for Cork and an approach that will achieve added value and strengthen local government. Unification can achieve all of the benefits of addressing the boundary issue while avoiding the disadvantages and complexities which would arise for both authorities by 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 his agreement with the main recommendation to establish a unified authority rather than simply extending the city boundary, the Minister indicated that he 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 - including governance arrangements, functions, and arrangements to maintain the status of the city - must be fully developed as, indeed, must the issue of addressing, as necessary, issues raised in the minority report.I understand that the Minister will be making a submission to the Government on the approach to be followed in light of this further consideration of the report.