Lessons from the MacKinnon report for local governance

LGiU Ireland Director, Andy Johnston, explores the local governance lessons that the rest of Ireland can take from the MacKinnon Report and the case of Cork. 

The report of the Expert Advisory Group on Local Government Arrangements in Cork (the Group) published in June has once again created an interest in local governance and its relationship to big issues like transport, economic growth and demography. Undoubtedly, most attention will be focused on where the boundaries of Cork City might be redrawn, however, the report also looked at local democracy in Cork.

The issues under examination were not surprising and to some extent are being discussed in other parts of Ireland. The need for a figurehead or directly elected mayor, the relationship between urban and rural and the relative responsibilities of plenary council and municipal districts.

These are important, but arguably more important is the range of powers that are available locally, regardless of which tier has ultimate responsibility. The report was scathing about the progress of subsidiarity in Ireland.  A couple of quotes are enlightening:

“The Group was struck by the relatively limited range of local government functions in Ireland.”

“It would seem to the Group that the rhetoric and the reality of developments in this area [subsidiarity] diverge from one another. Most are supportive of the principle of devolution, and yet increasingly responsibilities are being transferred to national bodies, often on an ad hoc basis.”

Remember the Group was led by a person from Scotland so for this to be highlighted is really saying something.

The logic of the Group’s argument is very clear. Their first priority was to consider which governance regime would best facilitate the development and growth of Cork as a second city and counterweight to Dublin. Part of the solution was about lines on a map. However, the development of a city is a multi-dimensional challenge and by definition is driven from within that city.

Local Authorities do not need powers for the sake of it, but many important things connect at the local level and so decisions about them demand local accountability.  It has been acknowledged that economic and community development should be devolved. However, attractive conditions for new business can be undermined by a mismatch in local skills, robust imaginative planning can be held up if the priorities are different to those of infrastructure providers and top class community development can undone by poor coordination with health, wellbeing and social services.

There is an increasing consensus across the world about which responsibilities sit best at which level. The direction of travel is clearly to devolve but to do so in a pragmatic way rather than through sweeping reorganisations. If you’re thinking locally then you instinctively know that what is best for Cork may not be best for Galway and vice versa. A new settlement for Cork creates an opportunity to establish the appetite for devolution, the capacity to deliver if such responsibilities were made available and the means of testing their success.

The Group did make it clear that they had not had the time to fully explore local democracy issues and wished they could have done more. It is to be hoped that Minister Eoghan Murphy and his just announced Minister of State, John Paul Phelan, recognise the opportunities identified by the Group and start to put power closer to the people.