The first batch of 80 public inquiries into NSW council mergers began yesterday with many people voicing angry concerns that the government has failed to make a strong enough case for forced mergers to go ahead.
Over at Wests Ashfield in Sydney’s Inner West, the public inquiry into a merger between Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville Councils drew about 300 people across the afternoon and evening sessions with about 140 people registered to address Cheryl Thomas, the delegate chairing the public inquiry.
Residents, councillors, organisations and council staff spoke across a wide range of issues with almost all speaking in opposition to the creation of a new super council.
The main concerns outlined by speakers about mergers were:
• Loss of local identity and damage to community spirit
• Loss of representation, with more residents per councillor
• Developers getting projects approved more easily
• New councillors having weaker connections to place and residents
• Less diversity in local councils, e.g. women and ethnic minorities
• Insufficiently strong business case made by the government to justify merger disruption
• Overstatement of the financial benefits and savings of mergers by government
• Understatement of the risks and costs of mergers by government
• The full KPMG report has not been released
• Disruption to services and closure of community facilities
• A lack of honesty , transparency and integrity in the merger process
• If administrators were appointed, residents would lose their voice during the passage of major developments
• If mergers go ahead, senior staff should stay and manage the transition to a new council, after local government elections
• Many called for a plebiscite on council mergers
Ms Thomas will write her final report based on the merger case, the public inquiries and written submissions and present it to NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole and to the Boundaries Commission, which will provide comment to Mr Toole.
Mr Toole will decide whether or not to recommend each proposal to the NSW Governor.
An occasionally feisty crowd listened as representatives from all three councils declared that the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) had found them financially sustainable and solid performers.
Ashfield Mayor Lucille Mckenna said councillors had been “jumping through hoops” for the last 18 months during the Fit for the Future process and councils had been erroneously told they were “broke and needed fixing.”
“Ashfield is already a lean and resourceful organisation,” Ms McKenna said. “We don’t need to be big to be agile and responsive.”
She said the government had underestimated staff redundancy costs and the costs of new shared IT systems, if amalgamations went ahead.
“Some of this work is going to go for many, many years and the cost is just enormous,” she added.
Ms Mckenna voiced what appeared to be one of the main concerns in the room should mergers go ahead: that new super councils would hand developers carte blanche for huge infrastructure projects.
The Inner West is currently the subject of a number of large infrastructure projects, including WestConnex and the renewal of Parramatta Road and the Bays Precinct, the Sydenham to Bankstown rail upgrade, not to mention key sites that have been in limbo for years, such as Callan Park in Rozelle.
Ms Mckenna said twelve councillors in the newly-formed mega councils would be representing 186,000 people – or around 15,500 residents each – across 35 sq km and they may not have the detailed local knowledge or the connection to place to represent residents properly or understand developmental impacts.
Newtown Greens MP Jenny Leong said installing administrators come June would cause “irreparable damage” to neighbourhoods as locals went without representation during the passage of major developments, “a bureaucrat will be sitting at the helm when actually communities need to be engaged.”
Ms Leong gave the example of environmental impact statements around WestConnex, where childcare centres, sports fields and schools had been left off maps.
“Local councillors know their local area. What makes local councils work is because they are local,” Ms Leong said.
Several people were concerned that councillors would become less diverse and less representative of their populations if there were less of them.
Ms McKenna said: “In a large council it’s unlikely that independent or minority candidates would win elections.”
In Ashfield Council, one-third of councillors are independent, half are women and half come from non-English speaking backgrounds.
Leichhardt Council General Manager Peter Head concentrated on the financial case for mergers.
He said there were “serious errors” in the KPMG report the government was using to justify mergers and that savings were about two-thirds less than the report claimed, $23m rather than $88 million over twenty years.
Mr Head said the costs of mergers had been understated: “Our independent modelling predicts it will cost $42 million to merge three councils.”
Newly-merged metropolitan councils have been offered $10 million by the government towards merger expenses.
Leichhardt Council’s Director of Corporate and Information Services, Matthew Phillips, labelled the KPMG report “fundamentally flawed” and said it seriously underestimated the costs associated with mergers, such as staff redundancies and harmonising IT systems.
He also disputed the government’s calculations of possible procurement benefits from a merged council, which he said organisations such as Southern Sydney Region of Councils (SSROC) already.
“The $65 million is grossly overstated and undermines the government’s case,” Mr Phillips said.
Services were also a major topic of the evening.
Marrickville Greens Councillor Sylvie Ellsmore said residents most feared specialist services would be cut and some community facilities shut down under an amalgamated council and that there could be a loss of responsiveness to local needs.
“There is no information about services in the minister’s [merger] proposal,” Ms Ellsmore said. “It’s a footnote. What about how much residents value services?”
Mr Head agreed that services would be affected by amalgamations. He argued that services would either be adjusted down to the lowest standard provided over the three councils, or be adjusted up to the highest standard provided, causing costs (and rates) to rise.
One brave women provided the lone dissenting voice of the night, and she may well have represented many people who would be the least likely to attend the meeting: supporters of council mergers or those who don’t care.
Claire Carruthers accused councils of being “highly parochial” an exhibiting “a high level of self-interest.” She said councils had run anti-merger scare campaigns based on propaganda.
“Many local councillors are not fit for the job. This issue is unimportant to the vast majority of residents,” she said.
Despite this, she appeared to agree with the rest of the speakers that NSW Premier Mike Baird had not made his case well: “We need some good information out about the real benefits of amalgamations.”
Public inquiries end by February 11 and the deadline for written submissions is Friday February 28.