By Paul Hemsley
Councils in New South Wales and Queensland have mounted a hard-fought campaign to stop forced amalgamations of local governments, but it’s a very different story in the West where mayors are backing a push to merge municipalities.
The voluntary push for amalgamations from councils in WA has been highlighted by City of Perth Mayor Lisa Scaffidi’s campaign to expand her council’s boundaries by amalgamating with the neighbouring City of Vincent and other surrounding areas.
The president of the Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA), Troy Pickard, says that the push for council amalgamations in WA is different because it has come from within from the local government sector, a factor that removes much of the controversy and resistance that has characterised top down efficiency drives in the eastern states that have been led by state governments.
Mr Pickard characterised an important difference in amalgamations in WA compared to the bitter experiences in Queensland’s in 2008 as being that the WA government has been encouraging mergers without resorting forcing them – a far cry from the legislated approach used by the previous Queensland government that is now being unpicked following referenda.
Notably, City of Perth Mayor Scaffidi called for the amalgamation and boundary change to the Metropolitan Local Government Review Panel, which was created by the state government in June 2011 as an independent body to recommend appropriate boundaries and governance models for councils in the Perth metropolitan area.
The Panel concluded its work in July 2012 and gave its recommendations to Minister for Local Government John Castrilli which included options about how to change the boundaries of the City of Perth.
Ms Scaffidi responded to the Panel’s set of options for changing the boundaries in Perth by backing its Option B, which she advocated as the “minimum scale for the ‘new’ capital city”, which would expand the city’s radius of approximately five kilometres around the central business district.
However the City of Vincent was not on board with any plan to amalgamate in its submission to the Panel’s Issues Paper released in October 2011. The City’s submission in December 2011 said that the City is sustainable at its current size and that amalgamation is not necessary.
The City of Vincent responded to the Issues Paper by conducting a “deliberative democracy” process to uncover how the community felt about suggestions of amalgamations and boundary changes. The process found that residents and rate payers decided their city should be bigger by growing to 50,000.
City of Vincent Mayor Alannah MacTiernan said the council presented four options to the community which included a complete re-drawing of boundaries to create a city of 100,000, amalgamation with the City of Perth, expansion of borders to incorporate nearby suburbs or no change at all.
Ratepayers were enthusiastic about adding surrounding suburbs but amalgamating with the City of Perth and expanding Vincent to create a population of 100,000 got a colder reception.
However WALGA has backed the notion that amalgamation is only one option for reform as there are other ways to achieve reform in WA including costing initiatives such as regional resource sharing as well as income initiatives such as council controlled enterprises.
“Most metropolitan local governments accept the mandate carried by the re-elected state government and are prepared to work collaboratively to initiate structural reform if provided appropriate support from the state government,” Mr Pickard said.
According to Mr Pickard, the Premier Colin Barnett’s stated objective has been to reduce the number of local governments in the metropolitan area from 30 to between 15 and 20.
Mr Pickard pointed to the amalgamation between the City of Geraldton and Greenough Council as an example of a successful merger as it came from the realisation by those councils that the population growth and rates base was in Greenough but all the regional facilities were in Geraldton.
“Effectively meaning that the residents of Geraldton were underwriting the facilities used by the wider population and because of the growth of the population, would become less and less sustainable over time,” he said.
He said councils generally instigate amalgamations if there is a “genuine community need” and “clear economic, environmental and social benefit”.
Comment below to have your say on this story.
If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sign up to the Government News newsletter