Council amalgamation submissions

Our Leichhardt 450The state government has appointed ‘a delegate’ to examine its proposal to amalgamate Leichhardt, Marrickville and Ashfield Councils and to hear from the public.

The delegate will have to measure the proposal against the ten criteria listed below. After each of these criteria we cite some of the evidence that shows the government’s case does not measure up. Feel free to use this evidence in your appearance before the inquiry or in a written submission.

Financial advantages or disadvantages of the proposal to the residents and ratepayers?

The Baird state government claims that a KPMG study into the three Councils shows financial advantages BUT they refuse to release it so that it can be subject to independent and public scrutiny.

Understandably – because there are no financial advantages. In fact recent experience of Council amalgamations in Queensland, Victoria and Auckland shows rates go up.

The Australian expert on Council amalgamations, Professor Brian Dollery, director of the centre for local government research at the University of New England, said recently: “There is no net savings in amalgamation – it is expensive and there is overwhelming evidence to support this”. See http://www.hawkesburygazette.com.au/story/3677724/holes-in-amalgamation-justification/

Dollery has pointed out elsewhere that the government and KPMG have claimed the amalgamations across Sydney will reduce wages costs by 2 per cent of operating revenue. However Drollery’s research found that staff costs rose by 8 per cent in Queensland after amalgamations. This is just one of the myriad of errors in the parts of the KPMG study that have been released. See http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/council-amalgamation-report-ignores-what-it-wants-to-ignore-20160125-gmdadu.html

Financial modelling commissioned by Leichhardt Council shows that a separate Leichhardt Council will perform better financially than a mega Council of Leichhardt, Ashfield and Marrickville.

Communities of interest and geographic cohesion in the existing areas and in any proposed new area

Leichhardt forms a natural geographic area. Parramatta Road, a major traffic artery, forms a long southern border with Marrickville. Likewise Hawthorne Canal forms the western border with Ashfield; Johnson’s Creek the eastern border with the City of Sydney. The foreshore of Iron Cove, Sydney Harbour and Rozelle Bay forms the continuous northern border. Leichhardt Municipality is a clearly delineated geographic area.

Leichhardt Council, as presently constituted, has been in existence for 67 years. The experience has wedded the six suburbs together into a natural collective and bonds of tradition have developed or deepened. There has been the long experiment with its unique ‘open Council’ which residents, new and old, support as a key part of the political and cultural landscape. And there is, of course, the common loyalty to Tigers, the local NRL team.

Existing historical and traditional values in the existing areas and the impact of change on them

Residents of Leichhardt Council have a proud history. The Council has ways of making decisions and campaigning for community objectives that involve residents.

Because of ‘Open Council’ the individual citizen can make their views known and they can be listened to – to a greater degree than at other levels of government. This impact is partly due to the fact that Leichhardt Council is reasonably small and accessible.

Attitudes of the residents and ratepayers of the areas concerned

All existing opinion polls show a big majority in favour of the retention of Leichhardt Council and opposition to forced amalgamations.

We are convinced that a plebiscite or referendum would emphasise how widespread this opposition is. Why won’t the Baird government or the Liberal and Labor Councillors agree to hold a plebiscite?

Any effects the merge might have on elected representation

The impact of amalgamation on representation will be dire. At present each councillor represents 5,000 people. If the amalgamation is usccessful each Councillor will represent more than 15,000. That will mean less access for electors and less attention from Councillors who would have vastly expanded areas and numbers of issues for their attention.

This reduction in democracy is more than of formal concern.

The state government has made no secret of the fact that it expects the new amalgamated Council to be more ‘co-operative’ on issues like the Bays Precinct, WestConnex and urban redevelopment. In other words, they expect the new Council to be less representative.

Just this week Professor Brian Dollery, Australia’s acknowledged expert on Council amalgamations was asked why the government would be so keen on amalgamations if there was such a mountain of evidence against them. His response was that he believed there was pressure put on governments by wealthy developers to amalgamate councils.

He said the government wanted to make it easier for developers to build things in NSW. “The big end of town wants fewer local councils because it is easier to get development applications approved.”

The government’s own case for amalgamations admits as much. After listing their plans for WestConnex, urban redevelopment in our area (up to 12-storeys) and the Bays Precinct (16,000 dwellings), they say: ‘A new Council will be able to better partner with the NSW Government on the implementation  of these urban priorities.’

If the new Council is oriented in this perspective it will fail to represent residents who in the cases cited expect their Council to oppose rather than partner the state government in these projects.

That expectation is well-based. By opposing state governments and their ruinous projects in the past, Leichhardt Council, for instance, has achieved environmental gains. Think Callan Park. Think Ballast Point park. Think Bicentennial Park on Rozelle Bay. All major achievements in the face of state government determination to ruin these present foreshore parks with development.

It is also worth walking the streets of Leichhardt municipality and enjoying the heritage landscape, again protected by Council against state government’s push for demolitions and higher-density development.

Any impacts the merger proposal could have on the ability of the council to provide adequate, equitable and appropriate services and facilities

It appears that almost all of the so-called savings from amalgamations will come from sacking staff. (A KPMG study published in December estimated that 96% of financial savings of merging Sydney’s Councils would come from reducing Council workforces.) That means reduced services.

Any amalgamated Council is likely to be forced by state government cost-shifting or regulation to sell-off Council property, privatise services, outsource and lay off staff.

Impacts on the employment of council staff

What we know of previous amalgamations is that redundancies of service staff follow as soon as it is feasible accompanied by increases in the ranks [and remuneration] of management.

Desirability (or otherwise) of dividing the resulting area or areas into wards

Wards are part of keeping local government local. Leichhardt did experiment in the 1980s with abolishing wards in favour of a single electorate but after two elections decided to return to wards.

However introducing wards into any amalgamated council will means wards so large as to cancel out any sense of local.

Ensuring the opinions of diverse communities are effectively represented

Much larger Councils will favour the major parties who have the resources to run candidates. It will work against independents and minor parties because they will now have to campaign in a larger area. The difficulties of getting a profile and costs of campaigning will blow out to their disadvantage.

If I want to have my say what do I do now?

You can send your written submissions to www.councilboundaryreview.nsw.gov.au or to GPO Box 5341, Sydney NSW 2001.