Thursday, August 4, 2011

Waterford City & County Merger?

Firstly, let me say a few things to contextualise my thoughts: (i) I love County Waterford. I think it is a most beautiful place with much to offer for people living there and tourists alike. (ii) I think change can be a good thing when it is done as part of a well thought out strategy that has a purpose and delivers improvements and (iii) I believe local government (and indeed all governement!) in Ireland is badly in need of drastic change - change that would deliver more responsibility and accountability closer to the people who avail of those services.

All that said, I am NOT in favour of change for change sake. Change that is part of a cut & paste 'pin the tail on the donkey' non-strategy or change that is merely moving the deck chairs, as it were. Change that doesn't deliver improved decentralisation and decision-making closer to the people - and that, I fear, is what is proposed in the mooted Waterford City & County merger for which a commission is about to be set up by Phil Hogan (who of course, has our best interests at heart) and which is due to report as soon as October this year.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that this is not a foregone conclusion? Hands up anyone who thinks the commission will recommend against merger? Hands up anyone who thinks this will be better for Waterford City? Hands up anyone who thinks this isn't an effort to give the EU/IMF what they want in a minimum way without looking at the bigger picture and sacrificing or downgrading Waterford City (& County) into the bargain? Hands up anyone who thinks this is part of a well thought out strategy to deliver better local government to the people of Ireland? And finally, hands up anyone who thinks that this isn't merely replacing old irrelevant boundaries, with new irrelevant boundaries???

I'm sorry to say but I think all of the above. I know that this is not part of a greater strategy. If it were, why isn't a merger of Galway City & County being looked at - despite the fact that the City Managers position in Galway has been vacant for a long time now - yet Galway City & County have been told they are not being looked at with regards to merger. Surely Monagahan - where the County Managers post is also vacant would merit a look at merging with, say Cavan. Surely the entire 26 counties would be being looked at in a complete way - rather than this 'commission' on Waterford City & County before the ink is even dry on Ray O'Dwyers retirement card - and he isn't even officially gone until September.

Sadly, I am long enough in politics to know that 'all politics is local' and I have a horrible suspicion that Minister Hogan from our neighbouring constituency, is using the merger mallet to crack a local nut. In order, not to cede part of South County Kilkenny to Waterford City (which makes sense and needs to be done), he merged Limerick City & County - without ceding the small part of County Clare that the City actually only needed and he is now proceding with Waterford. So, we will have control of what happens in Touraneena - but still no control over what happens 200 metres across the bridge! Call me a cynic if you like. You'd probably be right.

In practice, all a merger will mean is less focus on the city - think 2 1/2 days in the city and 2 1/2 days in the County for the City Manager and other senior officials! Is this better for Waterford? Think of our status as a City with a separate City Council - will this be downgraded from full city status leaving us in a weakened position in relation to the other cities in the State?

Think of our history and culture - we have had Mayors of Waterford CITY since the 1100's - and indeed we can even name them. Is that about to be ended - will the 2015 Mayor of Waterford hail from, for example, Tallow, or Stradbally? (No personal inference intended but politicians in those areas would have no affinity at all to the city in my opinion.)

Does any of this deliver a better service for anyone, City or County? Not in my opinion. Will it in fact, even deliver any significant savings? Are we being used as pawns in a 'don't mind the forest fire - look here at the pretty fairy lights' kind of excercise to fool people into thinking we are delivering 'efficiency' and 'savings' in local government for our economic masters? Will it mean Waterford Cities position will be strengthened or enhanced, or will it be diluted and weakened?

I am not convinced it is a good thing. I know it is not being done as part of a well thought out strategy to deliver better local government. I worry that we are being sacrificed in an experiment in obfuscation - and I have a great fear that what is about to be delivered up for the people of Waterford is a red-herring, dressed up as delivering 'efficiency' but really only delivering us back to the level of non-city status.

Normally I try to steer away from being a conspiracy theorist, but in this instance I can't help having a horrible sense of foreboding. And moreover, I think that no matter what we say, or think, or do - there is probably nothing we can do about it. Does anybody care?