Residents are gearing up to push NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to deamalgamate NSW councils forcibly merged in May last year, galvanised by recent court successes of two councils opposing their mergers.
Ku-ring-gai Council, on Sydney’s upper north shore, scored a victory against the NSW government in March when the Court of Appeal found it had been “denied procedural process” during its merger because delegate Garry West relied on a report from consultants KPMG, which contained financial modelling that the council could not access.
The state government was ordered to pay the council’s costs and decided not to appeal the decision but Ms Berejiklian has made it clear she will not back down on the merger and her next move is uncertain.
Rebel councils had another opportunity to celebrate after Woollahra Council was granted special leave to appeal against its forced merger with Randwick and Waverley in the High Court last week, reigniting the council’s hopes after a failed attempt to challenge the legality of its amalgamation in the Land and Environment Court in December last year.
The Ku-ring-gai and Woollahra cases have helped inspire the recent formation of two residents’ groups, which are hoping to stop some mergers and deamalgamate others.
Local Democracy Matters represents people opposed to the merger of Woollahra, Randwick and Waverley Councils, which is still on the cards.
Protect Pittwater is pushing for the succession of Pittwater from the Northern Beaches Council, which emerged from the former Manly, Pittwater and Warringah Councils in May last year.
Both groups are considering their options and legal challenges are likely.
Protect Pittwater is also planning to submit a proposal to the NSW Local Government Minister to redefine council boundaries and reinstate Pittwater Council under the NSW Local Government Act but first the group must gather the signatures of 250 of the enrolled voters for the area; or 10 per cent, whichever is greater.
Minister Gabrielle Upton, would then have to refer the proposal for examination and report to the Boundaries Commission or to the Departmental Chief Executive if the action was taken under Section 218E of the act, which deals with boundary alterations.
This could kick off the whole delegate, public hearing process all over again.
Bob Grace from Protect Pittwater, who served for three years on Warringah Council and 20 years on Pittwater Council, said the action was necessary to protect the area from high rises and dense development, similar to that already visited upon Manly and Dee Why.
He said there would only be three councillors out of 15 on the Northern Beaches council after the September local government elections and Warringah would hold sway.
“They’ve sold us out and I think everyone agrees with that. We will win this case if we go to court,” Mr Grace, a retired barrister, said. “There is really strong feeling up here. People in Pittwater are different. They don’t want a vibrant atmosphere like Manly and they don’t want high rise.”
The group will crowdfund the money needed for legal fees.
“Crowdfunding will enable the community to contribute and take action on their [own] behalf. They can get their council back if they want to contribute,” Mr Grace said.
“People are realising that this Northern Beaches Council is all spin. Services are going down and staff are leaving.”
Local Democracy Matters spokeperson Richard Horniblow said residents wanted to keep councils ‘genuinely local’ but some councils had not put up enough resistance to the government’s merger plans.
“While Woollahra [Council] has been working hard to protect its residents from a forced amalgamation, we have seen too little too late from Randwick and dreadful complicity by the Liberal majority in Waverley,” Mr Horniblow said.
“Our association has members from across the political spectrum who are coming together with one goal: to protect our right to genuinely local government that meets the needs of local residents.”
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said other councils where feelings still ran high could follow suit, for example Leichhardt, Gundagai and Tumbarumba.
“It is really heartening to see residents standing up so strongly for their councils and for their local democracy,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“Residents in the east aren’t waiting for Waverley and Randwick Councils to come good and oppose the amalgamation but are now taking the state government to court themselves.”
He said the Ku-ring-gai decision applied to all the government’s amalgamation proposals ‘on the face of it’ and this included Woollahra, Waverley and Randwick.
Randwick Council agreed on Tuesday this week that it would mount a late legal challenge to its merger after two liberal councillors withdrew a rescission motion.
Randwick Mayor Noel D’Souza said the council had received legal advice, which the council has said it will publish, which suggested it had grounds for appeal.
“Randwick Council’s position has consistently been that we are financially viable and strong enough to stand alone,” Mr D’Souza said. “With the climate changing it’s prudent that we consider our options.”
Merger court cases are still in progress for several hold-out councils, including Ku-ring-gai, Hunters Hill, North Sydney, Strathfield, Mosman, and Lane Cove.