Alex Greenwich

What is behind the council amalgamations drive in NSW?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Cgoodwin)

The Independent Local Government Review Panel, set up to identify options for council governance, structures and boundaries, predictably recommended council amalgamations.

Its proposal would merge some 40 metropolitan Sydney councils into 15 large councils, including a mega ‘City of Sydney’ representing almost 800,000 people by 2036, amalgamating seven current local government areas.

While most people support reform of some sort, wholesale amalgamations are not the answer, particularly for the inner city.

Unlike councils in rural and regional New South Wales, only seven metropolitan area councils were identified as being at financial risk. Despite such, the panel has suggested widespread amalgamations across Sydney. Rural councils representing small populations with a limited resource base may benefit from amalgamations to improve efficiency and services, but what of well-performing inner city councils?

Local government is the home of grass roots democracy and dramatically affects people’s lives. It is the level of government closest to the people it represents. This is a strength, providing people with easy access to their local decision makers. Councils can provide services targeted to local needs, which, in the inner city, includes managing the impacts of homelessness, the ‘late-night economy’ and the impacts, such as noise, traffic and parking, of large numbers of people concentrated into small areas.

Mega councils will make it incredibly hard for grass roots local representation and locally-targeted services, reducing access to decision makers and opportunity to contribute to policies and plans.

Amalgamations would cause disruptions to operations, and a wholesale reshape of local government areas could create years of uncertainty and inaction, as with all restructures. The last (2004) amalgamation of the City of Sydney, South Sydney and parts of Leichhardt required significant resources to align planning rules, budgets, services and staff. There is some evidence that restructures prevent organisations from doing their job for up to 18 months while they focus on internal matters.

The Review Panel’s discussion paper provides no evidence that amalgamations will improve finances or services. It assumes that bigger means better and more efficient. But economies of scale have their limits, and drawbacks such as badly standardised services and policies, lack of local knowledge, and distant decision-makers.

With disruption and loss of grass roots democracy, the case for amalgamations must show widespread economic and service benefits before any decision to go ahead with them. Many councils share resources and services by choice, and there is much more to develop along these lines. Providing incentives to improve accountability, services and responsiveness might be more helpful.

Councils have suffered many years of detrimental rate pegging that limits already regressive income sources, while being given greater responsibility for infrastructure and services. Rate pegging should be removed and the NSW Government should hand over some power to councils. Real reform for local government would give councils the authority to make decisions and the resources to implement them.

The panel justifies creating an inner city super council in order to share the City of Sydney’s wealth further. But the inner city drives Sydney’s global city status and is a major contributor to the state and national economy. These resources provide the infrastructure and services the global city needs, and that all residents use and rely upon. Wider Sydney already uses these resources, including the 500,000 people a day who travel into the CBD.

The City of Sydney council is one of Australia’s most financially stable governments, with excellent services and award-winning community facilities and open space. Its homelessness services are miles ahead of anywhere else in the country. It is forward thinking, with long-term plans to reduce emissions and costs, and to improve transport, waste services and community infrastructure. Planning decisions are made fairly and promptly, with quality design and community input. Its engagement with the community and business is highly regarded.

Why would you set about destroying that?

There is a long history of state government manipulation of local government boundaries in the inner city that lead many to be suspicious of these latest proposals. Since the end of World War II, State governments have altered the City of Sydney boundaries four times for party-political purposes, with amalgamations or de-amalgamations depending on what benefits the government of the day.

In 1982, the Wran Government amalgamated the City with the South Sydney Council. In 1987, the Unsworth Government sacked the council and it was again split the following year by the Greiner Government. And then in 2004 the Carr Government merged them back. You can read more about this fascinating history HERE.

The Premier has said the Government will not force council amalgamations, but its planning reforms and amendments to allow greater intervention in councils increase state government control rather than accountability to residents and ratepayers. This effectively undermines local democracy. The amalgamations agenda looks set to further remove community voices from decision making.

The history of forced amalgamations in Victoria and country Queensland is not pretty. The evidence from Auckland is also worrying –$100 million spent on the process, massive debt and 170 elected politicians. I believe there would be similar impacts on communities and resulting voter backlash if amalgamations were forced in NSW, particularly in the inner city where we are used to active representation and having our say in decisions that affect us.

Local government is under scrutiny from many sides and for different reasons. In addition to the Samson Review on amalgamations, the NSW Government has introduced major changes to the planning system, is working on the Metropolitan Strategy and has initiated the Local Government Acts Task force. It seems unlikely that there will be a coordinated vision with holistic, comprehensive recommendations for local government from such disparate processes. There are too many reviews too distant from daily life for most citizens to begin to engage with them.

A system of truly local and grass roots representative councils will depend on people fighting to keep a voice in decisions that affect them.


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