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INDOpinion

City expansion needs to be done correctly

Wednesday, 12th December, 2018 4:58pm

The bill to expand the city of Cork finally hit the committee stages last Wednesday and Thursday in Leinster House, with 128 amendments. The Local Government Bill 2018 will redefine local government in Cork.

A lot has been written, debated and thought about the boundary expansion but so far, we still do not have the clarity and foresight of service delivery in place for the expansion next June.

At the moment we are facing the local elections with no sight as to what the service delivery plan will be for the new areas coming under city control including Ballincollig, Blarney, Glanmire and Douglas.

Douglas gets forgotten in nearly all the correspondence of the expansion. For years many of its inhabitants have been under the impression it was already part of the city, when it was the county’s domain. The county has delivered funding to it for sure.

The work of the County Council on the Mangala/Ballybrack Woods is of the highest quality and it is a massive credit to those behind it. The maintenance of the community park is pristine and delivers a real community centre for the area.

What does next May bring for the area of Douglas? Challenges to funding? Yes. Opportunities for the same? Absolutely.

But we need to know the plan is there to deal with both challenges and opportunities and to date, we do not have sight of a plan.

There has been no ground effort from the City Council towards the area of Douglas to calm people’s fears about what will happen come June 2019. Regardless of who is elected to represent the area, there is a mountain of work to ensure the parity of service delivery is maintained.

Currently as we have had no sight on the plans, so for all intents and purposes, there are no plans. The legislation will be debated today (Thursday) in Dáil Eireann.

If passed today it will go to the Seanad, but there is no guarantee it will be passed in time for January, leaving a tight deadline against the clock for the transfer of staff. We haven’t scratched the surface of what issues could arise there.

If there is no service delivery plan, the only alternative is that there is a diminution of services within the newly formed wards - meaning Blackrock, Mahon and Ballintemple would suffer in service delivery to bring Douglas and Rochestown into the city.

Our roads are already in dire need of continuous patch and repair. Traffic congestion is chronic throughout the city but the pinch points of Douglas Village, Mahon Point and Skehard Road need immediate relief.

The bill also outlines the idea of a plebiscite for a directly elected mayor, yet we have no sight on the powers or remit of such an office.

We cannot start a process of installing a directly-elected mayor without knowing what powers it will have. Will it replace the Chief Executive or work in tandem and how much oversight will Council have on such a role?

There is a very strong possibility that the internal mechanics of such a role could dominate the next City Council ahead of a vote, likely in 2024, after which point a newly elected mayor would spend their first term of office grappling with the new role and its boundaries.

All this is at the diminishment of what the local authority must do - service the people - not seek photo-ops in San Francisco but deliver proper services to the people and businesses of Cork city, old and new.

In recent weeks and months, we’ve seen the inflexibility and brashness of Cork City Council executive when it came to the Patrick Street movement strategy.

Regardless of good-intentioned intentions, communications was a massive issue. Communications will be an issue for the new and the current city council areas that will feel the financial strain of a larger entity to serve in the short-to medium term.

It is not enough to place a notice in a paper and expect that to be the end of the public consultation process.

We have to bring consultation to the people, in a proactive manner. We have to utilise community centres, sports clubs on matters that affect communities. We must think outside the box.

New areas like Douglas and Glanmire and Ballincollig and Blarney will need to know that they have a buy-in with the new Cork City Council authority. Council must be in the business of communications.

I would propose that a new method is allowed under Standing Orders in the new council where groups representing a cause can address council directly, almost like a petitions caucus. There can be a set aside special meeting every two months or so to hear the concerns directly and it informs the business of council and informs the votes of elected councillors.

It’s clear the recent issues dogging the executive stem from a lack of communication to the people it serves. This would be an important step in restoring a dialogue in council.

The mechanism of allowing a group could be thrashed out but could be as simple as 50 per cent plus one of the council voting to hear from a group. That in itself would present an avenue for issues not anticipated by the executive or elected councillors. It would be a small but meaningful move for community groups.

We must reimagine our local democracy in Cork continuously, otherwise we will all be speaking to our own echo chambers.

Regardless of who is elected next May, the challenge is stark, the opportunities are endless but only if we work together away from egos and personal vendettas.

It’s a new chapter, let’s start it by doing the basics right.

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