The NSW government has ruled out any more forced amalgamations but has indicated that the secret report used to justify them will remain under wraps.
Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock told a budget estimates hearing this week that the controversial reforms announced in 2015 had paid off and had been accepted by local communities, and the period of forced amalgamations “is behind us”.
The newly formed councils, some of which had been facing financial instability, were now working collaboratively and positively and were moving forward, she said.
“I concede that there has been a lot of concern throughout the whole amalgamation process. However, the benefits of amalgamation are now evident, and many of our new councils are benefitting from the new councils—the new structures,” she told the hearing.
However Ms Hancock later conceded that she couldn’t “make a general statement” about whether the budget position of amalgamated councils had improved or declined.
Missing KPMG report
Ms Hancock also faced questioning over a 2015 KPMG analysis commissioned by the government into potential savings from amalgamating councils, which was used by the then Baird Government to justify the reforms on the basis of projected savings of $20 million over 20 years.
The report was never made fully public, leaving many councils, which spent months fighting for its release, in the dark about the decisions made about them by the state government.
The suppression of the report ultimately worked against the government and brought some amalgamations undone, after the Court of Appeal found that not all the information had been considered.
Ms Hancock on Monday said she had read the report but this was some time ago and she “couldn’t quite recall it”.
Asked on Monday by Labor local government spokesman Peter Primrose if the full report would be released Ms Hancock said, “that was a Cabinet decision and I am not going to discuss Cabinet decisions”.
Mr Primrose replied, “Okay, so no”.
Reduced customer service and faster DAs
Ms Hancock said there had been many tangible benefits from the amalgamations.
One inner western Sydney council had reduced customer service call waiting times by 37 per cent and development application processing times by 38 per cent, she said.
“The City of Canterbury Bankstown integrated enhanced systems to allow residents to lodge a development application, return a library book or pay rates at one single location,” she said.
“As for better infrastructure, again, Canterbury Bankstown completed or progressed 300 capital projects, including bus stops, disability access upgrades, sports field and lighting improvements and the installation of CCTV cameras to fight illegal dumping.”
Meanwhile, Cumberland Council had transformed a community centre into a one-stop shop for residents seeking information, advice or referrals for more than 20 community and local, State and Federal government agencies, and MidCoast Council had established a $30 million road care program.
Ms Hancock said she had received submissions from Tumbarumba-Tumut and Gundagai-Cootamundra which wanted to de-merge.
Those submissions were being considered and a decision would be made as soon as possible, she said.
“I do not want to be a dictator; I want to be a partner with councils,” Ms Hancock said.
On Monday Ms Hancock “absolutely” ruled out any more forced council mergers in the term of government.
“In the future the policy is not to force any further amalgamations on our communities,” she said, adding the Office of Local Government would consider voluntary amalgamations if councils put a submission forward.
IPART in 2015 proposed a policy of mergers and amalgamations designed to reduce the number of councils in NSW from 152 to 112.
The then Baird Government announced 19 new merged entities in 2016 but was hit by a barrage of legal action from recalcitrant councils and the government ended up with 128 councils.
In July 2017, Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the government had abandoned the remaining amalgamations of 14 Sydney councils that still had matters before the courts.
A report by the NSW Audit Office released in May found councils had made progress towards becoming more efficient since their forced amalgamation substantial work still needed to be done, particularly around ICT systems and business processes.
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