Any doubts that the Baird LNP government has forced mergers of local Councils on its agenda have evaporated since the March state election.
A debate in NSW parliament last week, along with documents outlining processes being used by the LNP government in its “Fit for the Future” local government reform program, reveal that any forced amalgamations would be aimed at reducing the effectiveness of council and community opposition to unpopular developments including the WestConnex motorway.
Inner west councils along with the City of Sydney have been outspoken critics of WestConnex, and on Tuesday Marrickville Council joined the City of Sydney and Leichhardt Council in passing a motion stating its strong opposition to WestConnex.
On Thursday, NSW Liberal Party MPs voted to defeat a motion that “forced amalgamations of councils’ are a “flawed and counter-productive vehicle for meaningful local government reform”. The motion was initiated by Sydney Independent MP Alex Greenwich and supported by all Labor and Greens MPs and independent Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper
Mr Greenwich told parliament, “We need local government reform, but it should not be undertaken by state government imposing itself upon local government…”
“Amalgamations will potentially lead to rate increases, but most importantly they will lead to a loss of local representation and a loss of local democracy.”
The LNP government was elected in 2011 on a policy of no forced amalgamations. In its first term, it initiated the ‘Fit for the Future’ process, which it described as one of “partnership”. But despite hundreds of submissions and reports opposing forced mergers, its Independent Local Government Review Panel recommended Sydney councils be reduced from 41 to between 15 and 18.
During the recent election campaign, the then Treasurer Andrew Constance embarrassed the government by referring to “using the stick” to force council mergers. 26 Sydney Metropolitan Mayors wrote to the Premier seeking a commitment to no forced amalgamations but when questioned, Mr Baird would not disclose whether or not the government had dropped its no forced amalgamations policy.
Councils have been given until June 30 to respond to drastic proposals for a merger of Ashfield, Burwood, City of Canada Bay, Leichhardt, Marrickville and Strathfield Councils into the inner west and a mega-council the size of Tasmania made up of the City, Randwick, Waverley, Woollahra and Botany. The June deadline is designed for all changes to be complete by the next local government elections in September next year.
A letter sent to councils from the Minister for Local Government Paul Toole in late April has an ominous tone. The first step in demonstrating that they are ‘Fit for the Future’ is to demonstrate ‘scale and capacity’.
In the letter sent to Leichhardt Council Greens Mayor Rochelle Porteous, Mr Toole added,”I trust that you are exploring the Panel’s recommendation of merging with Ashfield, Burwood, Canada Bay, Marrickville and Strathfield councils, or an alternative broadly consistent with that option, to ensure your council meets the threshold criteria of scale and capacity.
In a separate document setting out the political agenda behind the amalgamation process, the objective, rationale and methodology are highlighted. While the objectives for rural councils mention maintaining ‘community life to the maximum extent, the metropolitan objectives fail to mention community instead the focus is on creating councils that will be ‘true partners of State and Federal agencies which would take into account “planned developments’ and underpin Sydney’s status as a global city.
The rationale for the merger of the five inner west councils specifically mentions the “need for unified government to plan and manage Parramatta Road, the impact and integration of WestConnex, inner west redevelopment and a proposed major centre at Burwood.”
According to Mayor Porteous, these words lay at the heart of the merger agenda.
“Local councils are the line in the sand defending local communities from the plans of developers and large corporations”, she told City Hub.
“Councillors and Mayors are the ones standing up for their local communities and fighting alongside them against bad state government ideas like WestConnex and the overdevelopment plans of Urban Growth. No wonder the state government wants to shut them down.”
The call for unity around planned development would concern residents and groups from Concord to Glebe who are actively campaigning against developments including the sell off of the Powerhouse Museum, the privatisation of Australian Technology Park, and WestConnex.
As City Hub explained in its report last week, the WestConnex Delivery Authority (WDA) environmental assessment processes marginalise communities and individuals but the authority is required to deal and negotiate with each council and respond in more detail to its submissions on behalf of the community.
Merged councils would result in far less elected representatives, reduced staffing and are predicted to lead to more privatised services.
“Turn local councils into mega-councils and you remove local accountability, local democracy and the ability of government to be responsive to the needs of the individual and the community as a whole” said Mayor Porteous.
According to community consultation in Marrickville, Leichhardt, the City of Sydney and other councils, a strong majority of residents support their councils in opposing the amalgamations.
The views of Mr Greenwich, Mayor Porteous and others arguing that the forced amalgamations are a threat to democracy are also supported by an independent report by consultants Morrison Low which was commissioned by several inner Sydney councils.
This report found that the most negative aspect of the Fit for the Future recommendations was “the number of people represented by each councillor will increase significantly making it more difficult for residents to access their councillors and the council.
Based on the current maximum of 15 councillors each of those would represent 22,000 residents which does not compare favourably to a little under 4,700 in Leichhardt currently.”
The report also found that there was evidence to support the Councils’ argument case that they can be sustainable in the future in terms of size and funds.