Ben Keneally, at a recent NSW Urban Task Force discussion on local government reform

14 May 2013 — Councils are gearing up for war after the New South Wales Local Government Review Panel report provided strong support for amalgamation. Though the state government has reiterated forced amalgamations will not occur, it hasn’t stopped councils from preparing to fight the prospect of government reneging on its commitment.

Strathfield council has already earmarked $50,000 for a website called Save Our Strathfield, which is fighting amalgamation efforts. Co-chair of the council’s amalgamation task force Helen McLucas called the campaign a “grassroots resistance”, and applauded the mayor’s motion to support community efforts. Though in January the ourstrathfield.com.au website stated that McLucas had launched the site.

A spokeswoman for Strathfield said the council would not be doing a mail-out to canvas residents’ opinions, saying it would be too costly. She said councillors were elected on a platform of no amalgamation and that the response to the Save Our Strathfield site was an indication of community sentiment.

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The mayor of Botany Bay City Council, Ben Keneally, told The Fifth Estate his council would be doing a mail-out to see how residents felt about the suggestion to amalgamate with the City of Sydney and a number of other inner-city and eastern suburbs councils.

“Our position is that we’re opposed to amalgamation but we’re here to represent the community, so we’re in the process of doing a mail-out to residents to see their view,” he said. “We are concerned about pressure for voluntary amalgamation.”

Mr Keneally also expressed concern about the planning white paper.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure to meet all sorts of targets,” he said. “Obviously Sydney needs more housing supply. The state government is trying to pull the right levers to make that happen and I understand that.

“Botany council are leaders in getting attractive, appropriate development delivered. We have significant dwelling growth with community support. And that’s the needle that needs to be threaded.

“Our concern is that the state government is too focused on the number of days to approval. Thirty days here or there is not the issue… If you move too far down the path of taking community out of having a say on individual development you risk losing community consent. You might save 30 days on the process but you end up losing the community.”

Burwood mayor John Faker, centre, at the recent NSW Urban Task Force forum on local government reform

Mayor of Burwood council and president of the Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils John Fakersaid he welcomed the government’s re-emphasis there would be no forced amalgamations, but there remained concern that planning reforms woul

“Instead of amalgamations, the way to go would be to have councils share resources in order to maintain local infrastructure,” he said.

““Last year alone SSROC collaboratively achieved $20.7 million in savings regionally for 16 councils which represent 1.6 million residents in Sydney.”

Jeff Kennett

Victoria amalgamated and the sky didn’t fall in

The Victorian Kennett government, like the current NSW government, came in over 20 years ago on a “no forced amalgamation” policy. However, the Kennett government enacted a series of structural changes to local government that set the wheels in motion for mass amalgamation resulting in a reduction of councils from 210 to 78 along with the sacking of 1600 elected councillors, who were replaced with handpicked commissioners, many of which had a Liberal or Nationals bent.

After the outrage of amalgamation and the subsequent removal of the Kennett government, the narrative goes that it was a runaway success for local government in Victoria.

Speaking to The Fifth Estate, Victorian Local Government Association President Samantha Dunn said that the general consensus would be that local government reform overall – which included, but was not restricted to, amalgamations – had been positive.

“There are several things that can be considered in NSW to make it a more positive experience for communities and minimise the downsides,” she said. “Reform should not be mixed up with other agendas such as rate cuts or rate capping. We also think economies of scale should not be overestimated, particularly in the early stages – I think in Victoria there was an early assumption that larger councils meant reduced costs. This hasn’t always played out.

“We think consideration needs to be given to the role of existing councillors in any transition – the replacement of councillors with commissioners or administrators in Victoria was not easy and created a lot of angst.

“Amalgamation and consolidation costs lots of money, and this should be accepted as part of the process.

“Larger councils means that there can and should be more focus on ensuring highest possible quality of candidates, reforms to powers of mayor and councillors, and improved remuneration and conditions, which has been important in Queensland and may be why the reforms there are better regarded at this stage in that State.”

Noosa

Queensland is de-amalgamating

However, amalgamation has been so unpopular in some areas of Queensland that costly de-amalgamation is now occurring in some regions. A referendum was held in the recent state government elections, with residents in Noosa, Livingstone, Mareeba and Douglas shires voting to de-amalgamate from their regional councils. Councils will have to meet the cost of de-amalgamation while ensuring service levels are upheld. The Bligh government bloodshed in the state elections has been partly attributed to the amalgamation move.

Begun under the Beattie government, the move to amalgamation followed a similar path to what is happening in NSW at the moment. Similarly, close to 50 per cent of councils were found by Queensland Treasury Corporation to be “weak”, “very weak”or “distressed”. This finding was used by an independent Local Government Reform Commission to put forward plans for amalgamation.

The NSW government would be well aware of community disapproval of forced amalgamation and the re-election risk this entails – especially after stating there would be no forced amalgamations – so it may be looking at other levers it can pull to turn the hand of local governments to accept voluntary amalgamation.

The carrots

Some of the carrots recommended by the panel include enabling the establishment of local boards to ensure community-level governance; exemption from rate-pegging if the new council demonstrates a high standard of financial planning, management and community engagement; and financial incentives to early movers.

Though, with a state election less than two years away, and the Labor party tarnished by the current ICAC proceedings, the government may be biding its time to run on a platform of forced amalgamation, a move that has been suggested by Victorian amalgamation magnate Jeff Kennett, and which some local government observers say is exactly what Premier Barry O’Farrell is waiting for.