LORD Mayor Mick Finn came in for criticism a few weeks ago when he proposed that Cork City Council should declare a housing crisis in the city.
It’s rare for a sitting Lord Mayor to take such a strong stance on a policy issue, and his critics accused him of politicking with a local election just around the corner.
Mr Finn said that it was his duty.
“I am a politician, but had to park that for 12 months and be as neutral as possible.
“I’ve had to park a lot of my own ideas and opinions because I’m conscious of being a neutral chair. But there are times when it comes out.
“When it came to the housing issue, that affects everybody,” he said.
Mr Finn’s one-year term as mayor comes during a period of great change in Cork’s local politics.
He’s the first independent Lord Mayor in half a century, as the old civil war parties finally had their grip on the Mayor’s chain loosened.
He’s also the last Lord Mayor of the current incarnation of Cork City Council, before its boundaries are expanded and it takes over the majority of the Cork metropolitan area.
Because of that, he sees himself as tasked with stewarding the council from the old politics to the new.
But with all this reform going on, he wants to see the council go even further.
While there is plenty of talk about boundaries and elections, he wants to talk about powers, and housing is the place to start.
“Housing is fundamental in life. You had great housing programmes carried out here in Cork over the decades. Look at Ballyphehane, Blackpool, areas right across the city which were council projects.
“But the council has moved away from that or been pushed away from that in the last 20 years by the private market,” he said.
“That was all well and good when there was the money to do it, but once the money stopped and the economy started to slide, they withdrew from it and there was nobody building houses.”
He said that the overall solution is not simple, but one part of it is — the need for more housing units.
“We just don’t have enough houses to go around for social housing, for private housing, for affordable housing. We have homelessness and rough sleeping which requires a different solution.
“It’s a multifaceted problem, but the underlying solution is to provide more houses, more sheltered housing, more communal housing — just more units,” he said.
He said that without the power to build and strategise, the council just doesn’t have the capacity to solve Cork’s housing woes.
He wants to see an end to “red tape and bureaucracy” with the Housing Department and just have money given to local authorities to do the job as they see fit.
“There is so much oversight of the council and what it is doing, even with infill building.
“There were three houses being built in Ballyphehane and it took three years to get from the drawing board to finish, because of the oversight from the Department of Housing.
“The Minister for Housing could get rid of that bureaucracy with the stroke of a pen by trusting the council to build the houses. Trust the housing departments in the councils to do it.
“If you have a budget for housing, build the houses here as you see fit, not someone at a desk up in the department saying how you need to do it.
“The council is being bypassed and government has too many fingers in control of housing instead of allowing the people on the ground to do what they can.
“The council knows best what’s happening in Cork city,” he said.
The biggest thing happening in Cork city right now is the boundary change, and the City Council had to devote significant resources to prepare for the change at the end of May.
The move will see Ballincollig, Glanmire, Douglas and Blarney become part of the city, with the population increasing by 85,000 overnight.
Mr Finn said that the process has been “tortuous” but praised the teams working behind the scenes to make it happen.
He said that it will be years before most people in the new city council areas notice any change for themselves, but staff have had to deal with everything from housing lists to electoral registers as they make the change.
“It’s a huge undertaking. I have huge admiration for the two executives and the transition leaders. This wasn’t a Cork City Council idea, this came from central government.
“But once the decision was made and signed off on by the President, it was up to the city and county councils to deliver it, on top of everything else they had to do.
“They have done a very good job at keeping all the balls in the air, and now we stand at the cusp of a great opportunity for Cork to grow and expand,” he said.
He said that the city is now at a scale where it can both offer and demand a lot more.
“The extension of the boundary has opened up avenues for Cork to grow because it needs to grow if it’s going to be a counterbalance to Dublin,” he said.
He used the 10,000 new desk spaces in office developments around the city centre as an example of what the new council will have to deal with.
“It’s a new trend. We’ve heard about it on trips abroad. It’s a new trend worldwide where new companies with young workforces want to be based in the middle of a city.
“That has advantages and disadvantages, for transport, housing, and everything else.
“The opportunity now is that Cork can take those businesses.
“Cork is becoming a much more attractive city than Dublin and London because of the quality of life
“These accolades about being a healthy city and a friendly city and having festivals are not just taglines. They are real reasons that people want to move here.
“We are hearing that from CEOs of companies that have decided to move lock, stock, and barrel to Cork.
“The feedback from these companies is that people are enjoying their time in Cork, they like the lifestyle, they like what the city has to offer,” he said.
He said that there will be knock-on effects though, and the city council needs to work on “futureproofing the city.”
That means expanding housing into the new green belt areas around the city, new schools and amenities, and dramatically improving public transport options.
Mr Finn is an advocate for light rail, but said that Cork was too small before.
“That now is on the table. It wasn’t so far because Cork was too small.
“We can demand a lot more now.
“We’re now able to justify things with a bigger population and a bigger region.
“All the numbers are starting to stack up,” he said.
He said that light rail from the city centre and docklands area to places like Glanmire and Ballincollig are the way forward, even if they will cost money.
“We had all those rail and tram systems in place a hundred years ago. They were very strategically placed and well thought out. They were simple and effective.
“That’s what you’re looking at now and they will cost millions if not billions to replace them.
“We’ve talked to other cities where there were campaigns to get rid of light rail 15 to 20 years ago, they prevented that, and now they’re booming,” he said.
He said that he is looking forward to the publication of a new transport study that will lay out those options, but also defended the plans that are happening right now, like the Patrick Street car ban.
The controversial plan was first introduced a year ago before being paused, but has been in operation again since August.
Mr Finn actually voted against the overall City Centre Movement Strategy before as it shifted traffic onto some smaller residential streets, but said that the City Council has to prioritise public transport if the city centre is to survive.
He said that the negativity around the plan had come from a small segment of retailers, but had broadly been welcomed and is showing results already.
“If this works, there are going to be more people in the city centre, and it’s then up to the retailers to look at how they can tap into that.
“I know it hasn’t been easy on everybody, and there have been closings, but there have also been openings,” he said.
He rejected the notion that the city council would do something intentionally to damage businesses.
“The Council depends on rates. It’s certainly not in the interests of the city council to damage that,” he said.
“There are people saying we are doing it to ruin trade in the city. That’s entirely incorrect. That’s the furthest thing from the truth as possible. This is designed to boost trade. To boost trade for shops, cafes, and restaurants,” he said.
Mr Finn said that further changes will be disruptive, but are necessary if the city is to grow sustainably.
“We can’t go the way we’re going as a city if we keep on growing. We’re going to clog ourselves in, there’s going to be huge problems with congestion.
“We have to plan for the future, and this is the first phase of this.
“There is going to be other hard parts too,” he said, saying that prioritising buses, bikes, and light rail will see changes to certain areas, and even compulsory purchase orders.
“That’s really hard for people to deal with. But that’s the way things have to go. This is a very old city. These streets were built for horses and carts. They weren’t built for these volumes of traffic.
“Our streets are small, if they have to be updated and upgraded, so be it, that’s what we’ll have to do,” he said.
One change that the Lord Mayor isn’t yet comfortable with is the move to a directly-elected mayor.
Although it’s an idea he backs in principle, he is not satisfied with the government’s proposals to date, ahead of a plebiscite to be held alongside the local elections in May.
“I was looking at my very first election literature back in 2009 and I said back as early as then that I agreed with the concept of a directly elected Mayor.
“We’ve heard the soundbites from the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister, but we still don’t know what it’s going to be,” he said.
He believes that the proposal, without divesting power from national to local government, will just create another expensive layer of bureaucracy.
“My concern, based on the current models being talked about is that you are creating an extra layer on top of the current layer of management, and I’m not sure it’s going to be equipped with the power to make big changes.
“It’s dilution or filtering of existing powers, rather than giving new powers that are necessary,” he said.
“If the government wants a system like in New York or London, it needs to give the powers to do that. There is no point in creating an extra tier or a parallel person to the chief executive. That’s just creating another position at €130,000 a year.
“What are the people of Cork city going to get from that? Are they going to get more direction? More focus? More clarity? Or is it just somebody else getting a high wage and the people not actually benefiting from it.”
Whatever about the plebiscite, Mr Finn will be up for re-election in the Cork City South-Central ward this May.
Going into an election as Mayor may not be the boon people think it is — both the sitting city and county Mayors lost their seats in 2014 — and duties across the city keep them away from their constituents’ front doors.
Mr Finn said he has a full schedule ahead of him which will make canvassing difficult, but believes that he has to put himself before the people so they can judge him for the changes that have been brought about over the last five years.
“The election is going to be difficult for me, in terms of getting around to meet people, but ‘que sera, sera’, whatever will be will be. If I get back in, it will be great, if I don’t, it will be someone else’s turn.”