Councils and resident groups have expressed their anger at the State Government reopening the possibility of forced local government amalgamation.
The NSW Premier Mike Baird and Minister for Local Government Paul Toole last week announced a $1 billion package for council reforms, leaving the door open for forced amalgamations.
Under the Fit for the Future reform proposals, 31 Sydney metropolitan councils would amalgamate into 8 large councils.
“We are committed to rebuilding NSW and to achieve this we need a strong local government sector,” said Mr Baird.
“However this is not possible when more than one third of the State’s councils are facing financial problems – losing more than $1 million a day.”
From 2015/16, the Government will fund councils to the tune of $300 million to act on their approved ‘Fit for the Future’ merger proposals.
Mr Baird emphasised that at this stage no council amalgamations would be forced under the Fit for the Future reforms, but nevertheless left the possibility open for future consideration.
“The current position is unsustainable.”
The government is citing the Independent Local Government Review Panel’s recommendations on NSW councils to argue that the current local government system is unsustainable due to high debt and a poor economic outlook.
The Panel’s Fit for the Future document also implies the state government should take matters into its own hands should councils resist amalgamation, stating “[the] Panel respects ‘no forced amalgamations’ but some restructuring is essential to produce a sustainable system of local government.”
The report later states “‘no change’ is not an option”.
Part of the reforms is the possibility of a Sydney global city amalgamation into a “super council” comprising City of Sydney, Botany Bay, Woollahra, Waverley and Randwick City Councils. This move would merge the City of Sydney with three currently Liberal-dominated local government areas.
Botany Bay is one of the Sydney metropolitan councils with a “weak” outlook according to the report. Botany Bay Mayor Ben Keneally condemned his council’s treatment by the state government, labelling the economic modelling “dodgy”.
“The Government is using historical data that it knows is incorrect in order to build a case for forced council amalgamations,” he said.
Randwick City Mayor Scott Nash was positive about local government reform, but made it clear that he believed Sydney councils should not amalgamate.
Waverley Mayor Sally Betts welcomed the reform package but argued that the “global city” proposal for Sydney councils was not in the best interest of Waverley residents.
Waverley Council’s official position on amalgamation leans towards a voluntary amalgamation with neighbouring Woollahra and Randwick councils but would resist suggestions of a merger with City of Sydney.
City of Sydney councillor Linda Scott argued that forced amalgamations amounted to gerrymandering.
“The Minister for Local Government, Paul Toole, has flagged that he wishes to reconsider merging councils, even though the NSW Coalition promised no-forced amalgamations at the last state election. Yet again the Liberal Government is making decisions on cash, not communities,” said Cr Scott.
“Any amalgamation proposal should be decided by the independent NSW Electoral Commission, not by politicians. Anything else is a political gerrymander and should be opposed.”
Marrickville Mayor Jo Haylen indicated she would vehemently resist the Fit for the Future reforms.
“Not only are these amalgamations very thinly disguised as ‘voluntary’, but the so-called record $1 billion package to help councils is completely misleading,” Mayor Haylen said.
“Each Sydney Metro council that agrees to amalgamate will receive $10 million – and councils agree that the cost of amalgamations will exceed that amount many times over.”
The proposal for Marrickville Council is to amalgamate with Ashfield, Burwood, Canada Bay, Leichhardt, and Strathfield Councils.
The report also outlined that urban council amalgamation was possible without financial incentivisation. In particular, they cautioned “strongly against attempting to ‘buy’ amalgamations: the potential cost would be very considerable”.
Save our Strathfield community group took issue with the financial incentivisation of voluntary amalgamations, arguing that Mr Baird’s plan amounted to “a series of threats and bribes”.
“Strathfield residents know amalgamation is not in our interests. We know we have so much to potentially lose,” said Save our Strathfield co-chair Nella Gaugan.
The Sydney Business Chamber applauded the Fit for the Future reforms but highlighted that business should be part of any conversation on Sydney council reform.
“For too long the structure of Sydney’s local government has acted as a barrier to improved operating performance, regional planning and the competitiveness of Sydney as a global city,” said Sydney Business Chamber Executive Director Patricia Forsythe.
President of Local Government NSW Cr Keith Rhoades welcomed the announcement provided that no amalgamations would be forced.
“There are strong rumours that this is just amalgamation by stealth,” Mr Rhoades said.
The report notes that amalgamation carries a “distinct risk” to devolve local democracy, but can be “managed”. Strong links are posited between amalgamation, efficiency, strategic capacity and service improvement.