Council carve-up looms in NSW
The New South Wales Government says forced council amalgamations are well and truly on the table, after its recent report found most are not ‘fit for the future’.
The state’s Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal has been going through 139 proposals from 144 councils that either argued they should merge or stand alone.
But the auditors found just 52 proposals met criteria set up as part of the State Government's “fit for the future” council overhaul.
Just four of the councils that expressed a desire to merge were deemed fit to do so.
Forty-eight of those wishing to remain independent passed the grade too.
The IPART report found local government mergers could save ratepayers nearly $2 billion over 20 years – money that could be used to cut rates or boost services.
The Hunter region councils Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Maitland and Dungog were deemed "unfit". Single and Cessnock have been judged “fit” enough to not face a merger.
In NSW’s north, the Tweed, Kyogle and Clarence Valley councils fell into the “unfit” category, though Byron, Ballina, Lismore and Richmond Valley were deemed “fit”.
In the central west, 15 councils now face mergers after being ruled “unfit” for the future.
The report says the first set of mergers would likely see Auburn, Burwood and City of Canada Bay councils combined, while Randwick and Waverly councils could soon become one.
In regional areas, the Young and Boorowa Councils afre set to amalgamate, as are Cootamundra and Harden shires.
Bankstown, the Hills and Wollongong City councils were among those deemed “fit” to continue standing alone.
But just seven councils in the Sydney metropolitan area will be left untouched.
While most met financial criteria in the State Government review, most failed to meet scale and capacity criteria.
IPART reports that the major City of Sydney Council was the topic of the highest number of public submissions, most of which supported a standalone council.
But despite the City of Sydney meeting the financial criteria to remain on its own, IPART found it did not have the scale and capacity to be a “Global City Council”.
Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore defended the council's performance.
“Over the past 10 years, the City has consistently delivered debt-free budgets, kept residential rates among the lowest in Sydney, and delivered high-quality infrastructure needed by our community and the 1 million visitors to the city each day,” she told reporters.
“To say the City of Sydney is somehow unfit in the face of this strong evidence to the contrary makes a mockery of the entire review process, and throws into question all decisions made as a result.
“The impact of a forced amalgamation now would risk our 10-year, $1.94 billion infrastructure program as well as $30 to $40 billion worth of private development over the next decade,” she said.
NSW Premier Mike Baird says councils have 30 days to respond to the IPART review, and he hopes they will volunteer to merge.
If not, he indicated the Government may try to force mergers.
“I certainly think that we have come to the end of the road in many respects,” Mr Baird said.
“Obviously we will have to consider our options at the end of the 30 days if councils haven't participated.
“But our strong preference at this point remains for councils to do what is right for the people of this state.”
The Premier would not be drawn on whether forced amalgamations would be achieved through legislation or the Boundaries Commission.
The Government faces a massive challenge if it chooses the legislative route, with Labor, the Greens, the Shooters, Christian Democrats and some Independents all speaking out against the plan.
Labor spokesperson Peter Primrose said forcing financially unfit councils to amalgamate made no sense.
“What you're going to end up with under that process is with a larger unfit council,” he said.
“It's like having two drowning people and the Premier's solution to save them is for them to both hold on to each other.”