Proposed Cork Council Merger gains attention following UCC publication

University College Cork have published the Bovaird Report on Cork Local Government after seeking international advice from an expert on local authority governance.

The report, authored by Prof Tony Bovaird at the University of Birmingham examines the proposed changes to the Cork Council, whose conclusions have reinforced opposition to the merging of City and County body’s.  

In November 2015, the Cork Local Government Review Group won a three to two vote in favour of merger, confirming the Cork Business Associations (CBA) “worst fears” and prompting requests for an external review to re-consider the second option- the extension of the city council boundaries.

Author and chair of the Review group, Alf Smiddy rejected criticism stating: “a boundary extension, having been contemplated on numerous previous occasions, could not work in Cork” and that a merger would give “increased strategic capability of single authorities in delivering enhanced levels of service to citizens arising from the pooling of knowledge and expertise”.

The Bovaird Report emerges in conflict with the Local Government’s conclusion, believing the merger disregards the political realities of local government. Prof Bavaird writes: “On my reading of the evidence, it strongly favours the option of separate City and County Councils. However, even this option may well need to be developed further to meet all current expectations for improved governance, accountability and local democracy.”

The report identifies key areas neglected in the merger proposal related to; economic growth, the strategic interests of different regions (urban/rural) and a failure to substantiate claims of projected fiscal savings and highlights the need for both proposals to “bring more citizens into the decision-making process and the co-production of public services”, where the devolution of decision-making to active communities could revitalize development and management strategies.

2014 saw the merger of Limerick City and County Councils which has since been described as “a mess” by staff, with Local Authority of Professional Officers (LAPO) surveying members to find 94% disapproving of the new staffing structure, while 75% were ‘confused’ by the new management system.

In the same year, the Cork Chamber of Commerce recommended “the merger of Cork City and County Councils into a single authority by 2018” which now seems highly unlikely after the report notes: “the conclusion that a unified authority would ‘solve’ this conflict of views is one which threatens to undermine the rationale of having local government in the first place”.

Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and Cork local, Simon Coveney, hopes a consensus can be reached by the end of the year as he awaits a progress report from his appointed ‘expert group’ – chaired by Jim Mackinnon, the former chief planner of the Scottish government.

Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire has come out in opposition to the Ministers actions saying he needs to “accept the report” and “drop the idea”, as “the Bovaird Report simply takes apart the Smiddy report, it undermines in a detailed way its conclusions and recommendations” he said.

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