Twelve months ago the NSW Government walked back its program of council amalgamations in Sydney. While a number of larger councils have been created, the halt midway through the reforms has left lopsided local government in Sydney, where some councils are responsible for 300,000 residents while others look after only 15,000.
The Committee for Sydney was a strong supporter of the amalgamation policy – our patchwork of over 40 councils (now reduced to 33) makes governing Greater Sydney hard. Global cities like Sydney should not fear big councils – indeed bigger councils around the world tend to be more effective advocates for their communities – but it doesn’t take an expert to see that neither side of NSW politics has an appetite for further structural changes of that sort, probably for a generation.
We are, therefore, where we are. However, at a time when Sydney is rapidly changing, the need for local government that is genuinely fit for the future is just as pressing.
Without structural changes, what reform is possible? As it turns out, there is much we can do. First, we should give councils a stronger voice in decision-making. Part of the public’s concern about amalgamations was due to the trust people have for their local council. Giving councils a stronger say in their communities is a reasonable trade-off for them taking on a larger role. As the tier of government closest to local communities, councils should have a greater say in how the city is shaped. In a new report, we’ve proposed the creation of a Council of Metropolitan Mayors to work alongside the Greater Sydney Commission.
We also need to get fair on finance. Sydneysiders pay the lowest council rates in Australia. At a time when our city is struggling to deliver the local infrastructure we need, rate capping has meant less money for vital local services. Rate capping also means that councils cannot expand their revenue base. It is a crude measure and should be scrapped. Democratically elected councils should be free to have a mature debate with their electorate about how much local services cost and how to pay for them.
Worse still, as Sydney’s population grows, rate capping is starting to create some very perverse outcomes. Because rates are capped at the dollar value, a council experiencing strong population growth struggles to raise enough money to meet the community’s needs. At the same time, those communities most resistant to taking their fair share avoid any penalty for doing so.
A stronger voice and financing reform will only get us so far – we also need to encourage partnerships across different councils, particularly where they share economic or geographic links. The Western Sydney City Deal, while still in its infancy, demonstrates that councils can work across boundaries to develop wide-ranging economic and social strategies. There is no reason why councils in other areas of Sydney shouldn’t follow suit. There is safety in numbers and a city deal for the Central and Eastern cities could allow councils to strike new deals with state and federal government for investment or new powers.
We should mandate full-time mayors for our larger councils – it’s a big job and people shouldn’t have to have a second job while leading their council – and end the bizarre model of paying councillors and mayors a stipend rather than a salary. As a result of this, many popular Sydney mayors have been doing their job for over a decade and have near-empty superannuation accounts.
Government will of course have to change too. An adversarial relationship between local and state government does our city no favours. Some councils will also have to overcome ideological barriers to work in genuine partnership with the private sector. However, one lesson from the amalgamation policy is that change is easier to deliver by consent and collaboration, rather than coercion. Let’s use this anniversary to reset the relationship and put councils at the heart of our city.
Eamon Waterford is director of policy at the Committee for Sydney.