Inner West Independent

Calls to turbo-charge local government reform

Councillors in a meeting at Leichhardt Council Chambers / Photo: Craig Greenhill

Proposed “Joint Organisations” of councils should be expanded and made mandatory, the chief executive of Urban Taskforce NSW, Chris Johnson, has said.

Revitalising Local Government, an independent report to the state government made public last week, recommends Sydney’s 41 councils be reduced to 18, primarily through amalgamating small inner-city councils.

The report suggests clustering Leichhardt Council with Ashfield, Burwood, Canada Bay, Marrickville and Strathfield to form a unified approach to redeveloping the inner west.

An alternative proposed by the report is to encourage “strong joint organisations” to replace the current Regional Organisations of Councils and take responsibility for strategic planning and roads.

But Mr Johnson, whose organisation represents property developers and financiers, said the state government was being “far too democratic” by merely requesting co-operation.

“If the government is not going to force amalgamations, they need to make a statutory decision to have these joint organisations of councils,” he said. “We need some real authority.”

Mr Johnson wants JOs to be mandated as an initial step, with incentives offered later to amalgamate within that framework. But the review recommends the government wait to see if voluntary amalgamations take place first. That “will only delay the implementation of the new structure”, Mr Johnson said.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Johnson outlined two tensions encumbering development in the city: a disconnect between Australia’s three tiers of government, and a misfit between the market and the actions of councils.

“The marketplace is telling us there’s a big boom in apartments and generally people want to be in ring-type areas; close to jobs, close to amenities and in an urban environment,” he said. “That tends to mean suburbs like Leichhardt.”

But there is a critical shortage of new housing in the inner west, particularly apartments. The review projects that the Leichhardt LGA’s population will grow by less than 18 per cent by 2031, from 55,000 to 65,000, one of the smallest increases of any LGA in Sydney. Other areas of weak population growth are Waverley, Mosman and Lane Cove.

Mr Johnson said small inner-city councils like Leichhardt have become fiefdoms that are anti-growth and anti-change.

“Hopefully they’ll be thinking in a more regional rather than a more local basis,” he said of the proposal for Joint Organisations.

Mr Johnson also stressed the competing priorities of three tiers of government. Immigration policies dictated by Canberra are placing pressure on councils, which are resisting the measures necessary to deliver sufficient housing. State governments are neither objecting to federal policies nor forcing local governments to do better, he told the Inner West Independent.

Leichhardt Council is opposed to amalgamation and Mayor Darcy Byrne said he would resist such moves.

“Leichhardt Council has a strong financial rating and the great majority of local residents are pleased with the service they receive from council,” he said.

“We are not convinced of the need for any merger.”

But Cr Byrne did embrace the review’s proposition that all metropolitan mayors should be directly elected by constituents for four-year terms.

“Directly electing mayors is an important way to empower local residents,” he said. “For too long, councils have been infamous for back room deals every twelve months to elect mayors.”

At last year’s mayoral election, Cr Byrne announced a power-sharing deal which would see the mayoralty given to the Greens in September.

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