City Hub

No urge to merge: community activists reject Baird Government’s plan for super councils

BY ANDREW BARCLAY

In one of the worst kept political secrets of 2015, the NSW government announced last Friday that dozens of Sydney councils will be forced to merge and create ‘super-councils’.

Campaigners have reacted with dismay at the decision, arguing that the process is little more than a rubber-stamp.

“This is a clear political ploy resetting boundaries and chopping councils in half to placate electorates,” Tom Sherlock, one of the co-founders of the Save Our Councils Coalition (SOCC), told City Hub.

“This move is clearly a purely selfish political ploy which looks after their own interests instead of communities.”

Under the plan the number of councils in Sydney will nearly halve, from 41 to 24.

In a surprise move, the City of Sydney Council will be able to stand alone and won’t be forced to become part of a ‘global city council’, as had earlier been suggested.

Premier Mike Baird argued the mergers would lead to “stronger” councils, and improved infrastructure and services for ratepayers.

A report commissioned by the NSW government found the mergers could save $2 billion over 20 years.

After months of speculation over how the policy would be enacted, the government decided on using the existing merger process defined within the Local Government Act,

instead of sacking all councils and installing administrators, as had been reported.

Yet Raffaele Catanzariti from the Save Our Councils Coalition says the battle is far from over, and the group will use the merger process to give a voice to the community.

Mr Catanzariti said the process so far has been “little more than a kangaroo court.”

He noted that some of the councils that were deemed unfit by the government survived, while others that were found to be fit are slated for amalgamation.

“This is a purely Liberal Party move,” he said. “Liverpool Council was deemed unfit and has been allowed to stand alone because of political point scoring.”

The NSW government’s move has the potential to cause political implications.

Local Government NSW President Keith Rhoades said the announcement would have a real political price at upcoming state and federal elections, citing the recent bi-election for the seat of North Sydney.

“Community anger over a potential forced amalgamation resulted in a 14% swing against the Liberal Party,” he said in a statement.

Recent experiences in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory showed that forced amalgamations can be politically risky.

The Office of Local Government will commence a period of public consultation in January.

Following this, final proposals will be referred to the Boundaries Commission for review.

Ultimately, the Minister will retain the final decision.

“LGNSW will continue to hold the Government to account through this process, which must be followed to the letter if the Minister wishes to avoid legal challenges,” Clr Rhoades said in a statement.

The process up until this point has been lengthy.

First kicked off via the Local Government Review Panel in 2014, the NSW Government launched the Fit for the Future process in 2014.

Following this, the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) assessed all submissions and found sixty percent of local councils were not ‘fit for the future’.

The merger announcement comes as another blow to councils after IPART decreed last week that councils would be forbidden from increasing their rates by more than 1.8 per cent in 2016-2017.