Wednesday, 23 September 2015
Local Government Reform
I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to raise the important issue of the proposed merger of Cork City Council with Cork County Council. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, for being in attendance. I appreciate that the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, who is responsible for the implementation or otherwise of this report, cannot be present. Presumably, however, the Minister of State will report back to him. Along with other colleagues, I hope that we will be in a position to arrange a full Seanad debate on this matter in the very near future.
I come here with no fixed agenda on this particular proposal of the review committee.I served as a member of Cork County Council. I respect fully its history and its traditions and recall with fondness the people who served as very effective managers, engineers and county council colleagues. Overall, they did a very fine job in the management of County Cork. I think back to various chairpersons of the council whom I served with and those stretching back long before my time. They include significant dignitaries of State, such as former Deputy Martin Corry from the Fianna Fáil Party and William Broderick from east Cork, who chaired Cork County Council for over 30 years. We had people such as Philip Burton, Frank Crowley, Donal Creed and many others, who all ran a very effective local authority in conjunction with councillors and management. The interaction between councillors and the community was very much at the core of that success story. There was a feeling that local government was really local.
Likewise, Cork city, with its mayoral traditions stretching back generations, includes figures of significance in Nationalist history such as Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney, who served with distinction in the city hall as lord mayors of the city. In more recent years, Cork city was served with huge and effective distinction by a wide variety of figures, including the current Opposition leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, and I think in particular of the late Hugh Coveney, Jim Corr and many others whose leadership of their city council resulted in a huge dividend for the city. Again, there was a city lord mayor and a city council working closely with the people. I believe that concept of the people being close to local government - of local being local - made a very significant and positive difference.
One of the difficulties I have in understanding where the Minister is coming from is that, while this report is being considered and the Minister seems to have given it some degree of green light, at the same time, he has announced an operational review of the new local government arrangements under the Local Government Reform Act 2014. I am firm believer in local government reform. Having been a member of a local authority, I know much could be improved. However, and I say this not in any way as part of a political point-scoring exercise, I believe the butchering of our local authorities and the decision in 2014 to rid our county of town councils will be shown to have been a grievous error. While some of the town councils could have been more effective, the baby was thrown out with the bath water. We now have local authority areas in our county that are 60 to 70 miles long. That is no longer local government. If this bare majority proposal by the review group goes ahead, we will not even have local government as planned in Cork; we will have an experiment in regional government.
I come to the debate as somebody who, when I looked at the concept of change in Cork initially, could see a purpose for a single authority. However, I was looking at it as a very different single authority. I was not looking at it as a chamber of 80 or 90 members, who would then be split into three parts and would probably be working against rather than for each other. I wanted a new form of local government. What has been proposed, sadly, may offer the worst of all worlds. It is not a strong combined unit and it certainly is not local. Before he makes any decision, I hope the Minister will sit down with all of the stakeholders - the councils and the communities - because this is a very major step. I believe it is an experiment in regional government at the expense of local government.
If we were starting from scratch and there had been no 2014 changes in local government, we would be talking about strengthening local government, strengthening communities and ensuring that local government is real and is local. The Minister of State has travelled as much of the world as I, probably more. I believe one of the features of much of Europe and North America is the strength of local government. Every community has its council, its mayor or its representation. What is now being suggested here will blow all of that apart.
In conclusion, I concede I do not have the answers.I do not think any of us yet has the answers and the report does not provide sufficient answers. We must note the very strong minority report of two of the five members who put forward a very important view which will require deep consideration. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, to advise the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, to proceed with profound caution. Some have suggested the Minister would like this to be one of his legacies. However, it would be a dreadful legacy. I hope his legacy will be one of caution and a careful, inclusive response. I call on him to pause seriously and to think deeply before any further move is considered.
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.
I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, is simply responding on behalf the Minister, Deputy Kelly, and has no discretion in respect of his response. However, it is a matter of some concern and I ask the Minister of State if he would concur that the future governance of Ireland's largest county and second city appears to have been considered and decided upon within one week of the Minister receiving this report. A one-week consideration by the Minister, Deputy Kelly, who presumably had much more on his plate, is simply not sufficient. I ask the Minister of State to request that the Minister, Deputy Kelly, reflect further and deeper. As I said in my initial contribution, he has committed to the House and the Government to look at all of what has happened as a result of the local government reforms of 2014 and the amalgamations which happened then. I ask that this not be kicked into the distant future. It is much too important to every citizen of Cork city and county for such a report to be considered and decided within one week. I am sure I speak for many others in the House and beyond.
The Senator must agree that publishing the report gave rise to a debate, which is part of what he is doing here today. I was in the Dáil last night when there was a similar debate by his colleagues in that House.
There is an ongoing public discussion and the Minister also said he would give further consideration to all of the details in the report. To repeat his statement, 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.
The Minister has left it open for discussion, no doubt, and for further consideration. I am sure that both the city and county councillors will be providing their responses to the high-level recommendation. It will give rise to a major debate, obviously, and people will have to weigh up what is best for Cork overall.
As Cork is really the engine of the south-west region, and has a huge impact in my own county, especially in the southern and eastern parts, it is very important that the right decision is made down there. A strong entity would be a counterbalance to Dublin, which is currently experiencing one of the greatest booms in its history as we can see on the streets every day. I could see this strong counterbalance as one of the advantages for the whole island.
There are obviously pros and cons. I will not be making the decision, but as Senator Bradford raised the question, I thought I would respond to some extent. I will be passing on what he has said today and the various issues he has raised will be taken into consideration.