Local Government Amalgamations Debate
(Discussion on Petition Signed by 10,000 or More Persons, 10 March 2016, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
Woollahra Municipal Council area includes my constituents in parts of Paddington, Woollahra and Edgecliff. They tell me that they do not want their services disrupted and they do not want their rates raised by an unnecessary forced amalgamation with Randwick and Waverly. Woollahra residents overwhelmingly support keeping their council as a standalone. Eighty-one per cent of those surveyed expressed support for existing boundaries and 80 per cent opposed forced amalgamations. More than 10,000 people have signed this petition. The council does not support the proposed merger.
Councils play an essential role in creating attractive, prosperous, healthy, safe and sustainable places to live, work and do business. It is vital that they reflect their communities' wants and needs, as Woollahra council continues to do. But the Government's plan to reduce Sydney's councils from 43 to 25 does not respect the community's wishes. There are a number of risks for Woollahra council residents. Independent analysis by Woollahra council identifies potential rate increases of up to 53 per cent under the proposed merger. This defies the Government's stated justification for forced amalgamations: lower rates.
While last year the Government committed to maintaining existing rates for the next four years, we are yet to see guarantees, and rates will likely rise after this period. A larger amalgamated council may not be able to cater for the specific neighbourhood policies that have protected Woollahra as rules get standardised and local expertise is lost. Woollahra council's local environment plan and development control plan recognise the uniqueness of the heritage conservation areas of Paddington and Woollahra and provide specific protections. These go beyond heritage protections in other areas, which recognise only facades, to also protect interiors. This has occurred partly due to the local knowledge within the council; a larger council is less likely to be able to produce such locally sensitive policies.
As with all councils earmarked for amalgamation, grassroots local representation and access to decision-makers are at risk, with fewer opportunities for community input to policy development. Efficiencies will not necessarily improve because larger organisations need more administration and management resources. There will be short-term costs and disruptions as staff, planning controls, rating categories, services and IT systems are combined. The council successfully argued in its Fit for the Future submission that it is economically viable and able to deliver community and social benefits. The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal [IPART] identified Woollahra Municipal Council as being fit for the future on all criteria except the Government imposed size criterion.
There is no evidence that merging financially weak councils would make an economically sustainable council that delivers the same or better services, and there are real risks for finically strong councils such as Woollahra. Woollahra is a unique area and there is no social or economic reason to change its local governance structure. The proposed amalgamation agenda seems to be more about "bigger is better" ideology and gerrymandering by those in power. It is not what our community has asked for. I acknowledge the work of the Mayor of Woollahra and Councillor Luise Elsing, who are in the gallery today. I know that the concerns about what the Government is doing have got to the stage where they have sought legal advice, which they have provided to the Government. The passion of the 10,000 petitioners shows that this fight is far from over.