Give residents a say over council’s forced amalgamations

February 9, 2021
Steffi Leedham, Pip Hinman and Markela Panegyres at a campaign stall. Photo: Peter Boyle

The forced amalgamation of Marrickville, Ashfield and Leichhardt Councils into the Inner West Council has been an expensive failure, and impending big rate rises for many residents prove this. Residents will get less say and poorer service but are being forced to pay more.

At the limited public hearings at the time — described as “consultation” — residents overwhelmingly opposed the amalgamations and demanded they be allowed a vote.

They were largely ignored, the exception being some Liberal-aligned councils which remained out of the tent and were eventually spared.

The government spin accompanying its push was couched in concerns about council budget overruns and fiscal responsibility.

Residents were always suspicious — and now we know that, in just three years, the amalgamated councils are in the debt to the tune of $1.03 billion.

The Inner West Council is also in serious debt — $124 million. Even if it was possible to secure the $24 million that council says is its “share” of the $252 million from the New South Wales government’s Stronger Communities Fund, it is not going to be enough.

Neither is any move to sell off council property, raise rates or outsource council services going to work.

This is the wrong approach because such measures will lead to less public amenity and greater hardship for vulnerable residents.

The council rort fiasco is a reminder that local residents were never directly asked about the three councils amalgamating.

The unfolding scandal over who authorised the biased allocation of council grants in the lead-up to the last state election is a direct result of the New South Wales government’s undemocratic amalgamation of 20 councils four years ago.

Then premier Mike Baird ignored local communities’ opposition to the amalgamations, forcing almost half of the state’s local councils to amalgamate in 2016 under the threat of being sacked and placed under administration.

The council grants, awarded before the last election, were a blatant exercise in pork barrelling but Liberal Premier Gladys dismissed it as “normal”.

We were told in 2015 that the “Fit for the Future” council merger policy would make councils more efficient, deliver better services and infrastructure and address budgetary concerns.

In reality, the amalgamations have weakened residents’ involvement in the decision-making of what has become an impersonal, unreachable mega council.

Smaller, more democratic councils would work together with communities and other councils to secure more state government funding for services, particularly affordable and secure public housing and childcare. The Inner West urgently needs to invest in initiatives to help gig economy workers find secure work as the pandemic-inspired recession continues to bite.

Community members need to be given a say on restoring the three councils. This could be done at the next council election on September 4.

[Pip Hinman is running with Markela Panegyres and Steffie Leedham for Socialist Alliance on a People Before Profit platform. They are organising a bicycle ride for open council and de-amalgamation on February 27. Click here to stay in touch with the campaign and here to see our platform.]

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