The recent publication of the Expert Advisory Group on Local Government Arrangements in Cork (the Group) would seem to bring some certainty to the future of both the city and county. Or does it? After the efforts of the Smiddy Group with the publication of both a majority and minority report and the Bovaird Review commissioned by UCC, the recent report provides a well-argued perspective on the future governance arrangements appropriate to a Cork which will be the second city of the Republic. Or at face value this is the case.
There is some validity in recent commentary that the report, like its predecessors, suffers from there being no agreed position at national level on what type and level of public services should be delivered through our local authorities, city and county. In addition, given the limited data available to the Group several of the options examined were restricted by the limited capacity to underpin conclusions through a reasoned economic perspective. The Group therefore, it would seem from these eyes, had to use its own international experience to determine what the members considered to be the most appropriate model for both authorities and in that context there probably was only one potential overall outcome, that of an extension to allow urban Cork grow to become a truly identifiable second city as is understood across the OECD.
The Group simply could not come up with a successful example of any local government model that would reflect the thinking of the Smiddy Majority Report.
So, urban Cork is set to grow and thankfully and critically it will underpin the planning of the State in the context of the National Planning Review, or at least thinking to date as we understand it, on the NPF. Where does this leave Cork County Council? Well it is the case that even with an extension of the order proposed for the City, the County will remain one of the biggest local authority areas in the State along with a commercial rates base that most other authorities would be really happy to have. Nonetheless, it is perfectly reasonable for the management and members of the County Council to be disappointed.
Here is the challenge. Clearly the on-going investment in the City environs not to mention the city centre, is going to have to be a central feature of an expanded City. To date those areas have provided, in effect, a subsidy towards the wider County. The Group suggest that this could be up to €40 million net annually…no small figure. The Group suggest that this be addressed through a compensatory instrument. The question however is that if Cork is to grow as an urban centre is it possible to transfer funds to rural areas which are having to confront the need for regeneration if those funds, or a goodly proportion of it anyway, are required to develop urban standard services in a second city?
One way or another national exchequer funding will be required to sustain a proper response to rural decline in Cork County while much of the necessary infrastructure required to develop Cork City to a second city status city is also going to require significant national support…all at a time when other parts of the State also require support to reduce the dominance of Dublin.
Perhaps most important, is that the discussions to address this compensatory instrument need to be set within an overall strategic context, something which both authorities have demonstrated in their recent publication of the Cork 2050 report. What if the State were willing to allow both develop within the strategic framework set within the 2050 plan? The discussion about how much of the €40 million should be passed over to the County would not then be the current central issue it would seem to be as an observer at the moment. More importantly how much will be made available from the national exchequer to put in place the infrastructure required to underpin the growth of Cork City and the renewal of rural Cork at a time of unprecedented change would seem to be the question that needs asking.
Maybe that might be the question next asked by a commission on local government for Cork and indeed the rest of the Country? It certainly needs to be answered if the NPF is to really deliver effective regional development and €40 million will not be enough if both Corks are to perform their rightful role in the overall development of the State.