“We are not known for being conformist down here in Cork” – Ann Doherty, Chief Executive of Cork City Council


Image: Slongy via istock

Cork City Council’s status as an emerging international city of scale makes it one of Ireland’s most innovative local authorities. However, being a local authority driving national economic growth also presents a unique set of challenges.

To find out more, Thomas and Hannah from LGIU Ireland spoke with Cork City Council’s Chief Executive, Ann Doherty, as part of LGIU’s ongoing leadership series with member councils in Ireland, the UK and Australia.

To start us off, it would be great to hear about your reflections and experiences as Chief Executive at Cork City Council, and what still surprises you today in the role?

One of the biggest reflections for me as Chief Executive of Cork for nine years, and also the reason I got into local government, is the huge impact local government has on the determinants of health and wellbeing at the community level.

In recent years, Cork City Council has led significant and consistent investment in improved walking and cycling facilities, retrofitting social homes, parks and greening the city. Our community section does phenomenal work supporting communities and community organisations across the city in terms of lifelong learning, family and parenting support, sports development, community development, and diversity and inclusion.

Diversity and inclusion are particularly important to Cork as we are the first local authority to fund the groundbreaking Sanctuary Runners initiative and the first Irish city to join the International Rainbow Cities Network due to our longstanding support for LGBTI+ policies.

The depth and breadth of our reach into communities informs Cork City Council’s vision and this will lead Cork to become a world-class city by driving local and regional growth, embracing diversity and inclusiveness and growing as a resilient, healthy and sustainable compact city with quality of life at its heart.

As the only organisation in the city with a democratic mandate, we have a unique leadership opportunity to bring together our partners across the public and private sectors, and act as an honest broker.

We are not known for being conformist down here in Cork. So, another constant surprise is the Cork people’s affiliation with City Hall. As a civic building, people have a lot of respect for Cork City Hall, and they love to come here for celebration or recognition. They see it very much as their space, owned by the people of Cork. That should not be taken for granted.

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As Cork is often in the national, and international spotlight due to its rapid growth, what are the key opportunities and challenges for Cork City Council at the moment?

Cork is a key player in the National Planning Framework, which is guiding the development of Ireland over the next 20 years and by definition, this presents wonderful opportunities and challenges. At the core of the City’s Development Plan (CDP) 2022-2026 is managing population growth while bolstering the quality of life for the community.

With a projected population growth from 211,00 to 335,000 in the next 20 years, comes massive opportunity for the city. There’s already €2.3bn worth of exchequer funding in the pipeline for investment in Cork’s transport, housing, culture, public realm, and flood defences, and that doesn’t include the funding for education, health and social services.

Under the CDP, Cork’s compact growth will focus on strategic areas to the North and South of the River Lee and throughout the city. This will see more people living in the city centre and the largest regeneration site in the country, Cork Docklands, and other outlined strategic growth areas.

A key direction of the CDP is the integration of land-use and transport planning to achieve a compact city and ultimately deliver a 15-minute compact, and sustainable city.

Climate action underpins all our work plans and strategies at Cork City Council. As part of the CDP we revised our flood maps to consider the 100 and 200-year events. This year, we are preparing a Climate Action Plan for the city. This also reiterates the need to advance the Lower Lee Flood Relief Scheme and address climate action initiatives (both mitigation and adaptation). We have identified a pilot decarbonizing zone to the west of the city.

The other big opportunity and challenge is Cork’s selection by the European Commission as one of the first 100 cities to lead on climate neutrality as part of the EU Cities Mission. If we are to succeed on this accelerated journey, it will require a whole of economy and a whole-of-society approach. This can only be done by information sharing and collaboration with our public and private sector partners and other mission cities. We will have to look collectively at shared challenges and tangible outcomes for people, communities and businesses. There is a huge opportunity for shared learning and engagement here, and that’s the benefit of being able to engage with organisations, like and unlike your own.

Recruitment and changing working styles are challenges faced by local authorities around the world. What is the approach at Cork City Council towards new working styles and where do you see trends in working styles going?

From my perspective, we need to be more creative in finding and attracting talent, and the bigger challenge involved with that is communicating what we do and the purpose of our work. Working in local government is a compelling proposition, but sometimes what we call our jobs makes no sense to the rest of the world.

We are seeing more and more people seeking to exercise their values through their work, and I feel a local authority offers something really unique in terms of opportunity. You can make a positive impact on communities and how people live, by working in housing delivery, horticulture, park maintenance, heritage and conservation projects, transport schemes and economic development. There’s an ethos and a value system in public service – the actual feel-good factor of delivering something for your community. However, quantifying and communicating this non-tangible aspect does not always conform to job descriptions.

Alongside this, we are seeing huge changes in the types of jobs available in a local authority. Look at the roles of tree officers, biodiversity officers and climate action officers, jobs that were not there a few years ago. Communicating our role in terms of climate action at a local level presents another opportunity for local authorities.

Within talent pools, and especially for younger generations, the job-for-life aspect which previously attracted people to local authorities does not have the same draw, meaning we must adapt to new technologies and work styles.

At Cork City Council, we have offered a blended working option of up to two days working at home to staff who do not need to be in the office five days a week. The ongoing challenge is to ensure that you continue to meet customer needs while offering flexibility to staff. And how do we balance this across the different types of roles to make sure blended working in one area does not make other roles unattractive?

We have opted for blended working as I do believe that face-to-face engagement is vital too, especially for younger or newer staff who need to learn about how we do things, feel part of teams and who often do not know their way around the organisation.

Cork is a UNESCO-designated learning City, so as an organisation, we believe learning is also informal learning, and engagement with your team and across the various functions and directorates. The workplace has always benefitted from those “watercooler moments” where younger and more recent employees can ask their colleagues, “Can I pick your brain on this over a coffee?”.

Cork is famed for its attractiveness for international investment. How is Cork City’s Economic Development Team working to help support both the IDA and small and medium-sized businesses?

This could be a thesis question itself!

Yes, post-Brexit, Cork is the second largest English-speaking city in the EU which is a very important part of positioning the city internationally. Also, the level of employment in FDI businesses in Cork has doubled over the last 10 years.

Cork consistently ranks well as a place to invest and do business. In the Top 10 Small European Cities of The Future 2022/23, we came 2nd in the overall ranking published by the Financial Times. We were also placed 1st for Economic Potential, 6th for Business Friendliness and 7th for FDI Strategy.

Particularly important from the FDI aspect is Cork’s profile and reputation as a counterbalance to Dublin. We are a small city of scale, but not as big as Dublin. Also, crucially, we have two universities, Munster Technological University and University College Cork which bring a phenomenal research and development base. Also, our international profile as the location of Apple’s European headquarters is reflected in the local growth areas such as ICT, Cybersecurity, Fintech and Food Technology, among other high-value sectors.

Our economic development teams work with our public and private sector partners to enhance and improve the ecosystem that attracts and retains investors to and in this city.

For example, if an FDI company is coming to Cork, the IDA will let us know, and we then inform the other relevant local partners, especially UCC and MTU, our tertiary education providers, and work together to meet their needs where we can.

Also in our Local Enterprise Office, there is a particular entrepreneurialism and innovation that connects with the FDI aspect and creates a synergy. Cork is known for small companies being able to grow and scale, and some of the start-ups that began from former Apple staff have stayed in Cork because of this eco-system.

How is Cork City Council working to deliver upon the 5,671 social and affordable homes by 2026, and what barriers do you see locally and nationally for local government in the delivery of housing?

Cork City Council is an exemplar and leader in the area of social housing delivery across the country.

It has a strong pipeline of supply well positioned to achieve government targets in the area of social and affordable housing within the context of ‘Housing for All’.

The Council has used the award-winning Competitive Dialogue process to drive housing delivery across the city and will continue to use this and all reasonable processes to ensure targets are delivered.

Like every local authority, we have an action plan to provide for those homes between now and 2026, in accordance with the targets set by the Government in Housing for All, such as delivering 3,934 social and 1,737 affordable homes.

It’s very ambitious by any yardstick, but we have a strong track record in what’s been achieved to date. We are innovative, we’ve been out of the blocks fast and when it comes to housing, a large part is down to working around the table with approved housing bodies and other agencies.

To give you a sense of the scale, in our previous 2017-22 Housing Strategy, we delivered 2,839 new social homes, and in the last year, we delivered 968 social and affordable homes, and up to 1,151 Social homes are under construction across 32 sites

But in terms of the problems and challenges, it is not just about creating social and affordable homes but about creating sustainable private rental apartments.

CCC, working with an AHB, delivered one of the first cost rental schemes in Cork city at Lancaster Gate (73 units). This rents at approx. 32% below market rates. The council is working with other AHBs and the LDA to achieve the delivery of significant numbers of cost-rental units, particularly in the city centre and docklands.

While the government has introduced a number of new schemes that could have an impact, in general, the viability of apartments remains an issue for us and across the country – especially due to building inflation and other cost pressures.

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Cork, as it grows from a relatively small European city, to one which will be comparable to mid-sized cities on Mainland Europe, will need to see significant investment in social and cultural facilities. What will the council be doing to advance the infrastructure needed for such advances?

There is a lot going on in this space.

Over the summer, we saw the installation of a new outdoor sculpture trail across the city centre. Island City-Cork’s Urban Sculpture Trail is a unique cultural trail of five public artworks throughout Cork City Centre for locals and visitors to enjoy. The art was all commissioned by a competitive process and the final by open call.

The project, funded by Fáilte Ireland under the Urban Animation Scheme, is the biggest ever single investment in public art in Cork City.

This is all part of our really ambitious arts and culture strategy, which commits to exploring and advancing space for art in tandem with the regeneration of the city centre. We are also progressing with plans in place to develop a world-class city library, which would also incorporate spaces for the arts. We’ve come to the latter stages of detailed design for an Events Centre – a €200m multifunctional Events Centre, which would just be a stone’s throw from the extended library site.

This is a game-changing project, which will be of major benefit not only to the city but to the entire wider region. The events centre will play a key role in the city’s renaissance post-Covid and will transform our tourism, cultural and hospitality offerings.

Separately, a further €29m is being spent on the redevelopment of the Crawford Art Gallery over the next four years as part of the Project Ireland’s capital investment project. The only national cultural institution operating outside Dublin, the investment will enable both full conservation and upgrade of a building that dates back to the 18th century.

Finally, during your time as Chief Executive, what was critical to ensuring a good relationship with the elected members of the Council?”

We have complementary and respective roles; it is about working together to deliver on goods and services. As a working relationship, that means there has to be really strong communication, constant engagement and sharing of information. In doing that, you build trust and respect.

In Cork, we are lucky to have elected representatives who are very, very active. They would have multiple committees and actively request a number of briefings on various issues. For instance, our Development Plan had 80 meetings with Councillors in preparation of the City Development Plan because of their interest and engagement.

I really respect our elected members, and I think that they have a very difficult task. Having to be elected locally and make decisions with city-wide implications is a tall order.

As an extra bonus, our budget committee is very active and exemplifies the benefit of sharing information and treating each other with respect. Our process is very much led by our elected members, who take a very active role. The directors present budgets to our elected members, and elected members’ priorities and the executive priorities are then joined up.

That is the secret sauce about how to make it all work.

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