Thursday, June 18, 2015

Has Amalgamation Delivered for Waterford City?

The amalgamation of Waterford City & County Councils took place in tandem with the Local Elections of 2015 and has now been in place for 12 months. The News & Star have asked me to write a piece on how I see things after the first year but rather than focus on the personal I decided to go back to the documentation, to the promises that were made when the merger was being proposed by the Amalgamation Committee under the Chairmanship of Sean Aylward and do an analysis of that.

So how has it been going? Has the status of Waterford city been protected as we were told it would and what, if any, actual benefits have derived to the City as a consequence?

The Implementation Plan to the Minister for the Environment, Community & Local Government was delivered in May 2013. It detailed some ‘high level interventions’ that needed to happen in order to both smooth the transition to the new joint local authority and to ensure that it worked. What were these things?

One of the crucial ones was “the view that...additional support is warranted to address legacy financial deficits”. In other words, the deficit as we now know of over €10m should be dealt with via ‘additional support’ from central government. Other High Level Interventions are laid out in the Report and they can be summarised as follows:

1                     Developing the critical mass of Waterford as a Gateway City including
-          The city centre as the engine for growth and brand reputation
-          Collaboration with partners in the South-East
2                     Developing human capital including the establishment of Technological University
3                     City Centre Strategy & Management Plan and prioritisation of significant retail development
4                     Connectivity including
-          Runway extension for Waterford Airport and
-          Measures to bring the Aurora dark fibre network to Waterford & SE Region
5                     Continued development of Viking Triangle and other county towns and opening of Mount Congreve.
6                     OPW site at Dungarvan and NAMA Michael Street potential to be maximised.
7                     New marketing strategy for Waterford
8                     New Director (and Directorate) for Economic Development
9                     Basing of IDA Regional Director for SE in Waterford
10                 Addressing of disparity of State Aid in BMW/S&E regions
11                 Audit of labour supply skills
Firstly the legacy debt was not dealt with through any ‘additional’ measures at all and the new Council has had to borrow to cover the historic deficits of both councils and spread the repayment out over the coming years.

The Technological University is caught in an increasingly uncertain vortex and indeed the entire process now hinges on whether a TU would deliver anything at all to Waterford and the South East other than a name change – bearing in mind that the government have clearly indicated that there are to be no additional costs associated with the designation - and that there now appears to be one for everyone in the audience (to coin a phrase). This is farcical and leads one to conclude that what’s on offer is but a yellow-pack designation which would offer no advantage to Waterford and indeed may even damage the current status of WIT but that’s a larger question to be dealt with another day.

The Airport Runway extension obviously hasn’t happened, nor is there any sign of it. Mount Congreve has been opened although it is hard to understand how that might be credited to, or is a consequence of the amalgamation process. Indeed some might say that it’s open despite the government rather than because of them! Additionally it is sad to see the nursery there recently closed.

The Viking Triangle, has continued to develop physically (slowly) although I would like to see an acceleration of the populating of the area with more unique businesses and activity. This project in my opinion needs refocusing.

While efforts continue apace (prior to and since amalgamation) to develop the NAMA site in Michael Street we can at best say that we are confident that something will happen. Although there is nothing concrete at the time of writing, NAMA have committed to designing the centre and applying for planning permission. As it stands all the plans for urban regeneration will amount to nothing, and indeed I would worry if a single paving slab will be laid, if that site is not developed. This must remain as a number one priority for the city.

A new strategy for Waterford is certainly being launched in the area of tourism although it is to be regretted that Tourism Ireland has seen fit to have Waterford now managed from the Cork office. This will, unless carefully monitored have a negative effect on the future development of tourism in the City (and County), in the same way as the removal of the IDA Director in 1995 (by the same government) had a negative effect on attracting industry. To be fair the launch of Irelands Ancient East could deliver for us following on from the huge success of the Wild Atlantic Way (from which Waterford was inexplicably excluded) but that is dependent on Tourism Irelands commitment and again is entirely outside the remit of the local authority and cannot be said to be consequence of amalgamation.

We also now have an Economic Director and Directorate and that along with the basing of an IDA Regional Director for the South East in Waterford City and the levelling of the field in relation to State grants has indeed delivered benefits in the past year. Of those, possibly only the first is attributable to the amalgamation (although all other cities got them too whether amalgamated or not). I also am concerned that since the Economic Director was appointed, his role continues to be diluted with other important responsibilities.

Our City identity, as I predicted has been all but lost and we are now the Metropolitan District of Waterford rather than Waterford City. The Mayoralty has been decimated on many fronts. In City Hall the MAYOR(S) have even been relegated to small offices lacking privacy or status rather than occupying the Mayors Parlour as heretofore. The City Mayoralty is second now to the Mayoralty of the Plenary Council and quite frankly the situation that pertains is ludicrous to the extent that under the current structure there is arguably, no place for a City Mayor. It pains me to even type that.

There have been savings at senior management level – with just one CEO and 4 Directors (back to the exact same levels of staffing as the City alone had prior to the amalgamation) but it’s hard not to counter that with lack of focus, split locations and the built in inefficiencies inherent in a split structure.

I am also willing to concede that things appear to be looking up on the jobs front with announcements from West Pharma, Glanbia, Nearform, Eishtech etc. to name a few. However, how many of these announcements are (I wonder) a result of the amalgamation?

We have been though (and continue to go through) a period upheaval in the Council with huge associated costs running into several millions – with, of course, no allocated budget for them. We have lost our City and our City Mayoralty – important perhaps only to those of us who value history & culture – but in my opinion we have also lost status and rank now in the second layer of Local Government in Ireland behind the three cities of Dublin, Cork & Galway.

I read a research paper during the year which, while not examining the Irish situation specifically, has carried out an analysis of Local Government systems in other countries. It concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that bigger was, in fact better when it comes to local authorities and that with the exception of the UK, Ireland now ranks among the countries with the lowest level of representation in local government. Which is no surprise as Ireland is among the most centralised systems of government in the developed world.

But don’t just take my word for it. Brendan Howlin, told the Labour Party conference in March of this year that he lamented that the change in local government and that it was the ‘biggest regret’ of his term in office and it should be reversed. He must have had his ‘eye off the ball’, he said. Go figure.

I would (and did) argue that real reforms and savings could and should have been made through shared services and other reforms which could have been delivered without the huge costs associated with amalgamation and without decimating city & town councils and their identities and status. Can I honestly say it has all been worth it – for the miniscule savings which may or may not accrue in time? No. I cannot. Waterford continues to suffer apartheid in the educational, health and job creation stakes. Changing our size has not – unsurprisingly – changed that one iota. Sadly, despite Mr Howlins’ howls (sorry) and other platitudes I do not see this abomination being undone in the short or medium term.