Council amalgamations: What do they mean for our community?

By Philippa Clark

There’s barely a government in the last hundred years that hasn’t talked about council amalgamations. The Baird-Grant Coalition government’s latest proposal is the most drastic yet – the aim is to reduce the number of Sydney metropolitan councils from 41 to just 18.

The process so far

When the government first announced that it would be embarking on a local government reform program called Fit for the Future, many in the sector were pleased and hoped for a productive discussion about how to reform wasteful areas of council administration. The Independent Local Government Review Panel (ILGRP), set up by the government in 2012, released its final report in January 2014 and it soon became very clear that the only serious intended reform was to force councils to amalgamate.

The ILGRP set the criteria which councils would have to meet if they were to be deemed fit to stand alone. Councils were then invited to make submissions to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART), whose job is now to assess them against the criteria. The submissions from councils were due on 30 June 2015, with members of the public now invited to comment on their council’s submission until 31 July.

There are serious flaws in the whole process. The most important test for councils is something called “scale and capacity”. This is quite literally asking councils whether they are as big as the government thinks they should be. Nobody knows exactly how big the government wants councils under Fit for the Future, but a ballpark figure of 250,000 residents is being thrown around currently. Most Sydney councils have a much lower population than that and don’t have a hope of meeting this criterion. The kicker is that any other evidence they provide in an argument to stand alone, like strong financial performance or great community services, won’t be taken into account unless they first pass this ambiguous test of scale.

IPART might be making the assessments, but they don’t have “teeth”. They might declare a council to be unfit to stand alone, but they can’t do anything about it. The government has to send any proposed amalgamation plans to the Boundaries Commission for yet another assessment – a lot of bureaucracy for a government that apparently wants to reduce red tape by merging councils.

The effect of forced amalgamations

Fit for the Future might not be such a bad policy if there was conclusive evidence that amalgamations make councils more efficient and give ratepayers a better deal. There isn’t. Just making councils bigger doesn’t solve their problems. It might surprise you to learn that Sydney councils are already very large by world standards – four times bigger than the OECD average (by population). In those comparable OECD countries, research has shown that the larger councils have worse road maintenance standards.

Amalgamations have also negatively affected councils elsewhere in Australia. In Victoria, rates went up and the efficiency of services went down. In Noosa, Queensland, forced amalgamations again caused a rate rise and angered the community so much that they held a referendum to go back to the way things were. 84% voted in favour and now the Queensland government has spent $5 million of taxpayer money on the process of de-amalgamation.

Smaller councils like Marrickville (80,000) and Ashfield (40,000) have a good track record of community engagement. The difference in a council like Canterbury (140,000) is remarkable. I recently attended a community forum about Fit for the Future in Canterbury, and many of the residents who attended were irate that their councillors did not listen to them and didn’t even respond to emails. (I should note that Greens councillor Linda Eisler was singled out for praise!) Having huge councils means that councillors are unfamiliar with the context of the development applications they are being asked to vote on, and can’t respond in a timely way or at all to community correspondence because there is just too much of it. Local government is the tier of government closest to the people. Supersized councils defeat that purpose.

The likely outcome for St George

The ILGRP recommended a merger between Hurstville and Kogarah with other options being to add Rockdale and Canterbury. Hurstville and Kogarah councils have argued that they can stand alone, but Rockdale has indicated a strong preference to merge with somebody. None of these councils have a population near 250,000 and so are likely to fall at the first hurdle, so to speak, if they claim they are fit to stand alone.

You may not love your council, but if amalgamations are forced upon us, things are only going to get worse.

Take action!

There are several ways you can register your objections to forced amalgamations and Fit for the Future. The IPART public submission period has closed, but you can write to your local MPs and the Minister for Local Government, Paul Toole. I also encourage you to write to the crossbench MPs from the Greens, Shooters and Fishers, Christian Democrats and Animal Justice parties who hold the balance of power in the Upper House. They will be key players in passing or rejecting any forced amalgamations legislation before the parliament. Send letters to the Leader and the Sydney Morning Herald, and have your say on social media.

For more information on the campaign against Fit for the Future, please contact the office of Greens MP and planning spokesperson David Shoebridge: 9230 3030 or david.shoebridge@parliament.nsw.gov.au.

What are your thoughts about this?