Four NSW councils holding out against the state government’s attempt to merge them have been dealt a serious blow to their chances in legal judgements handed down yesterday (Tuesday) but other rebellious councils scored a victory of sorts.
Shellharbour, Ku-ring-gai, Hunters Hill and Lane Cove Councils all had their cases dismissed by Justice Tim Moore in the Land and Environment Court, clearing the way for NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole to amalgamate them with their neighbours.
But NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole has promised to hold off for a week, giving the councils time to appeal.
During the court cases councils argued that the public inquiry process had not been fair, delegates had not considered all the facts and that the KPMG report relied on by NSW government to substantiate mergers was not independent and was partially withheld.
Shellharbour’s merger with Wollongong City Council is looking more probable by the minute after Justice Moore said there was “no defect in the process for this proposed amalgamation” and ordered Shellharbour Council to pay the government’s costs, which may influence whether the council decides to appeal.
Ku-ring-gai Council’s legal case that it should not amalgamate with Hornsby also fell flat.
Justice Moore called the council’s complaints “without foundation”, although he noted that delegate Garry West had not fully considered the impact of the proposed merger on people located in an area south of the M2 Motorway. However, this finding proved largely irrelevant since the area, which was once part of Hornsby Shire Council, was swallowed up in the new City of Parramatta Council proclaimed in May.
But the government was left with egg on its face from two separate appeals, one from Strathfield Council and another from North Sydney and Mosman Councils after the court found fault with the government-appointed delegates’ reports submitted to the Boundaries Commission.
Strathfield is battling a merger with Burwood and Canada Bay Councils, while Mosman and North Sydney are fighting to stand separately, rather than merge with Willoughby.
Justice Moore concluded that there was “no proper statutory foundation” for either merger to go ahead at the current time because he said both reports contained errors.
Greens Local Government Spokesman David Shoebridge called it an “embarrassing blow” for the Baird government and said there were “serious defects” in delegates’ reports.
“When a government tries to do a job on local communities and cut legal corners and rush through an undemocratic process it is no wonder they trip up,” Shoebridge said.
But Toole remained unbowed by the judgement.
“Regarding the action brought by Mosman and Strathfield councils, the court found that the delegate did not adequately consider one and two of 11 factors outlined by the Local Government Act respectively, meaning the proposed mergers remain in the hands of the delegates,” Toole said.
“The government will closely examine the findings in relation to these delegates’ reports.”
Although the judgement is not a positive for the state government, councils have not escaped the threat of mergers. Delegates could redo the problematic parts of their reports and public inquiries could be held again, although this would drag the process out.
Community action group Save Our Councils Coalition (SOCC) vowed to keep on campaigning against mergers, despite the mixed legal results.
SOCC President Carolyn Corrigan said that the amalgamation process had been “a shambles.”
“The government refused to fully disclose its KPMG report, refused to conduct a poll of residents, and refused to conduct a proper public inquiry,” she said.
“The recent local government elections show that the Baird Government is on the nose with the electorate. It would be well advised to withdraw its arrogant forced amalgamation proposals and adopt a cooperative approach with local government.”
Nineteen new NSW councils were created in May and Bayside Council was formed earlier this month after Botany Bay council lost its legal bid to stand separately from Rockdale. Woollahra Council is appealing after losing its case to stand alone, rather than merging with Waverley and Randwick.
A further three merger proposals are still going through the courts.
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