The outcome of a Government commissioned report of the Expert Advisory Group on Local Government Arrangements in Cork was launched by Simon Coveney TD at the Clayton Hotel Silversprings, Cork last Friday. The main outcome of the report is that the two local authorities (City and County) of Cork will continue to exist but with a redrawn border of the Cork city authority. The redrawn border will mean that Douglas, Glanmire, Frankfield, Rochestown, Donnybrook, Grange, Tower, Blarney, Ballincollig, Little island, Glounthaune and Carrigtwohill will be incorporated from the county into the city boundary. Clearly the new report recognises that Cork city has changed quite considerably since the last change to when the political boundary occurred in the 1950’s. The problem with political boundaries is that they often fail to account for the economic reality associated with changing city regions. Primarily, one of the key priorities for the Group was to “identify the appropriate governance structure that can provide a focus on both the growth of the metropolitan part of Cork city and its suburbs, and a focus on the growth and development of the harbour area, market towns and rural areas in the county.” The existing political boundaries fail to allow for appropriate governing structures of economic activity in Cork.
In terms of defining city regions, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) use the term functional urban areas. They use place of residency, place of work and travel to work data as representations of labour market interaction, housing markets and urban integration. A person’s every day or weekly activities may involve movement between many different locations in the Functional urban area. For instance, a person living in Passage may work in EMC Ballincollig, visit family in Douglas, socialise with friends in Cork city, play golf in Fota Island, go cycling in Rochestown and shop in Mahon and so on, so forth. Each individual living within the Cork City region will have similar, but slightly alternative daily/weekly activities and travel patterns.
The Expert Advisory Report is essentially identifying the need for a properly governed and functioning urban area. Cities with high population densities are driving economic prosperity. Individuals are identifying on mass the importance of living, working and socialising in close proximity. Urban areas are where the ideas for innovations are and the opportunities for work and wealth associated with them. A functional economic region built on a well-functioning urban setting with a high degree of economic and social diversity will fuel future prosperity in Cork. Hence, this change is indeed welcome because underpinning any well-functioning city region is the need for excellent and well-funded infrastructure and public services.
The OECD identified functional urban areas for Ireland and also for the Cork city region. It can be clearly identified from their definition of the functional urban area for Cork, that the Harbour area including Carrigaline, Crosshaven, Passage West, Ballygarvan and Cobh should be included in the greater Cork city region. Hence, I was surprised that the harbour area was left out of the intended redrawn borders of Cork city. In the report, the expert group conclude “a boundary extension of Cork City to include the immediate city suburbs and some commuter towns represents the best workable option for local government in Cork, albeit that this should extend beyond the boundary of the city suburbs as defined by the CSO (but exclude the harbour area and Carrigaline).” But large proportions of the population in the harbour area and Carrigaline work, shop, socialise and are dependent on other areas of the Cork urban region on a daily and weekly basis. With the new boundary, we are not taking this economic reality into account. Furthermore, in 2015 more money was spent per person by the city authority than the county authority. The figures are 649 euros per person in the county relative to 1170 euros per person in Cork city. If we go by these figures, we can expect that areas in the Harbour will be underfunded relative to their city counterparts in the future.
As we know, there is a lot of Foreign Direct Investment and indigenous industrial investment in the harbour area. They provide many benefits such as decent employment and very good wages (relative to the average industrial wage) and they also pay high commercial rents. However, they also bring negative externalities such as environmental concerns, increased traffic congestion and disruptions to the lives of people living in the area. Those costs are borne by local people in the harbour area. Hence it would be unfair if residents in this area do not get an adequate return in public services and infrastructure that at least in part offset these negative externalities.
The expert group feel that the harbour area should be “treated as a single economic unit” but that it should be included in the county authority. What does that mean and how is it to be governed? How can it be treated as a separate economic unit if it is going to be included with all other towns, villages and rural areas in the county authority? We need to think of ways of improving the integration and quality of life of areas already in the Cork urban area. The harbour area is going to be more dependent (not less) on the Cork urban area and vice versa. There is also room for urban expansion between the harbour area and Cork city. Developing here would reduce house prices and integrate our urban areas. Why are we so obsessed with protecting the ‘greenbelt’? We don’t use it. Most of us just drive through it. It comes with a high cost - creating high house prices, suburban sprawl, long commuting times and unsustainable development. Urban regions if planned correctly can be attractive and incorporate green spaces that people actually use and enjoy.