Local Government NSW has blasted the state government and the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) for releasing critical information late and rushing councils to complete submissions that will determine their very existence.
Last week, IPART released the criteria it will use to judge whether councils are Fit for the Future which are: scale and capacity; sustainability, effective infrastructure and services for communities and efficiency.
NSW Councils have until June 30 to submit a proposal demonstrating that they are Fit for the Future. Applications will be assessed by IPART and recommendations made on whether councils should merge or stand alone will be handed down in mid-October.
LGNSW President Keith Rhoades said this gave councils only 15 working days to work with the final assessment methodology before they had to submit their Fit for the Future documents, circumstances which he labelled “a mockery of fair process”.
No population minimum has been set by IPART for deciding whether or not NSW councils should merge with their neighbours but Mr Rhoades said the benchmark of scale and capacity was still “deeply problematic” because it could still be reached only if councils did merge.
“The majority of Councils represent residents and ratepayers who have said overwhelmingly they do not want to be amalgamated, so it’s a real Catch 22 and they’re on a hiding to nothing,” Mr Rhoades said.
Mr Rhoades said the speed of the process would hinder the chance of achieving real local government reform that would genuinely benefit residents and ratepayers.
“IPART is required to receive these critically important and complex submissions, make a judgement on each against complex criteria, and then advise the Government by October 16 whether or not individual Councils are ‘Fit for the Future’,” he said.
“With the Council submissions due on 30 June, IPART have, on average, less than one day per Council to make assessments.
“These are not insignificant documents we’re talking about – they will determine the future grassroots representation of communities in this state.
“Councils and the communities they represent deserve a voice in their own future, and they certainly deserve more than a single day’s flick through of a detailed and thorough submission.”
The publication of IPART’s final assessment methodology will leave councils in no doubt that mergers appear to be the name of the game.
The word ‘merger’ appears in the document 75 times (not including footnotes), ‘merge’ 19 times and ‘amalgamate’ five times while ‘stand alone’, which refers to councils that not required to merge, appears only eight times.
NSW Premier Mike Baird has repeatedly refused to rule out forced amalgamations.
Mr Rhoades said the writing was on the wall for NSW councils.
“The government’s agenda is pretty clear, and if the Minister’s comments in Parliament don’t spell it out sufficiently, the ridiculous timeline does.”
Clr Rhoades said even IPART Chair Dr Peter Boxall had publicly described the timeline set down by government as ‘challenging’.
“We agree – and we’re finding it increasingly ‘challenging’ to maintain any confidence that the Government is committed to an evidence-based, considered and fair reform process,” he said.
Leichhardt Council says criteria too narrow
Leichhardt Council in Sydney’s Inner West has already hit back at IPART’s benchmark criteria which it says focus too much on “financially-based quantitative measures’.
Leichhardt Mayor Rochelle Porteous said the IPART methodology failed to consider the 174 submissions it received from councils and the public.
“There is little or no consideration given to equally important qualitative measures,” Ms Porteous said.
Ms Porteous said IPART had failed to consider many other factors including: strong community opposition to mergers; loss of local representation; loss of identity and local accountability, responsiveness to local needs and values.
She said mergers spelt “significant organisational upheaval over many years”.
“These factors are far too important to be treated as secondary considerations to the financial benchmarks and should take much greater prominence in the assessment process,” she said.
But Ms Porteous was pleased about the “quiet endorsement” of Joint Organisations as an alternative to mergers for Metropolitan Councils.
The 2013 Independent Local Government Review (ILGR), headed by Graham Sansom, recommended Leichhardt merge with five of its inner-west neighbours.
IPART Chairman Dr Peter Boxall underlined that IPART had not set a universal minimum population for councils when assessing their scale.
“Scale and capacity are about more than population. We are interested in how high capacity councils are able to deliver quality services and infrastructure while keeping rates and charges affordable, and representing the diverse needs of their communities,” Dr Boxall said.
“Similarly, there is no overall pass or fail mark for the other criteria of sustainability, effectiveness and efficiency. What we are interested in is an overall assessment of a council’s proposal.
“These criteria, the way they will be measured and the benchmarks councils are required to meet, have not changed.”
“Scale and capacity was set as the threshold issue in September last year, with councils required to consider the recommendations of the Independent Local Government Review Panel as their first option but we will consider alternatives if councils can demonstrate that they will deliver benefits to the community that are at least as good as the ILGRP recommendations.”
Dr Boxall said the process was about more than short term budget adjustments.
“We will make holistic assessments by considering whether councils have the capacity to deliver what their communities need in the future,” he said.
“This leaves us able to consider alternative proposals that fulfil the intent of the criteria, and we will consider a flexible approach to individual benchmarks within each overall assessment.”
Urban Taskforce positive
Meanwhile Urban Taskforce CEO Chris Johnson has praised what he called IPART’s flexible approach to the Fit for the Future assessments.
“There were concerns that IPART would require certain population numbers to be a threshold requirement to be fit for the future,” said Mr Johnson.
“There is no evidence that big is better with local government and the real measure of fitness for the future should be how the state government and councils efficiently work together.”
He said joint organisations of councils might be a more effective way of meeting criteria of scale to deliver shared services efficiently.
“In the area of planning, for instance, alterations and additions to houses are best left at a local level but strategic planning for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of new residents and how infrastructure is provided for this must be considered at a state and regional level,” Mr Johnson said.
“The management of growth will need a partnership between local councils and the state government who provide the infrastructure and the community services. To only assess the role of the local council will miss the important role of the state government.”