The proposed merger of North and South Tipperary County Councils, announced by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Phil Hogan, last week, has predictably received a mixed reception, with some quarters deeming it a progressive step but others expressing serious concerns about the impact which such a move will have on services in both counties.
The move follows the recommendation in 2010 from the Government Efficiency Review Group, which proposed joint management arrangements in a bid to integrate administrative and service delivery to produce cost savings.
The decision, notwithstanding the recommendation, came as a shock in many quarters where the proposed amalgamation brings to an end 173 years of the separation of the local authorities in County Tipperary. The new body will now serve a population of 159,000 people, spanning a county 80 miles long - a formidable administrative task.
Concerns have, of course, been expressed in relation to how the move will impact on the employees of both Councils but staff have been re-assured that the terms and conditions of the Croke Park deal apply and, as a consequence, there will no enforced redundancies. That will come as a welcome relief to them, given the huge uncertainties which could have ensued from a proposal of this nature.
An additional “plus” is the fact that ratepayers in North Tipperary will benefit from the move, as a consequence of the decision to cut the commercial rate to the South Tipperary level, a saving of in the region of 389,000 euro to hard pressed business people.
However, there are legitimate concerns. One of the biggest bones of contention at present is where the new amalgamated authority will be located. Understandably, those in South Tipperary point to the fact the Clonmel is the largest centre of population in either of the two Counties whilst in the North proponents cite the impressive civic offices provided in Nenagh at huge cost just a few years ago.
Both have their advantages but the most obvious solution would be to locate an amalgamated centre in the heart of Co. Tipperary as a whole, the best example being Thurles which would be equidistant from the boundaries of South Tipperary, at Carrick-on-Suir and North Tipperary, at Borrisokane. This would obviate the need for those living at the very North to travel almost 70 miles to Clonmel and likewise those on the border with Waterford from making a similar journey to Nenagh, at not inconsiderable cost and inconvenience. It would place local Government at the heart of Tipperary, accessible to all.
Another issue is the impact which the amalgamation of the authorities will have on health services and strategic development, particularly given that they are in different regions. It has long been felt that amalgamation of services for the purpose of tourism and development would provide a single unified voice and would be far more beneficial than the division which has existed for over 170 years. This is an issue which Minister Hogan will have to address, as an amalgamated Council could not effectively operate within two different regions.
Obviously, it is unlikely that the new Council will have as many public representatives as the combined 47 that have served on the North and South Councils. This number is expected to reduce considerable and this in itself will prove contentious when it comes to amalgamating both bodies. It is inevitable that this will meet with considerable political opposition.
Minister Hogan’s proposal may well offer significant potential, if the arguments for amalgamation over past decades prove to be correct. However, the plan needs to be seriously fine-tuned and key issues addressed to ensure that it is not just a cost-saving exercise which, in the long run, seriously mitigates against the future development of the County.