Communities oppose council merger

Issue 
Many NSW councils in Sydney and in regional areas have strengthened their resolve to fight the forced merger process.

"Overwhelmingly, our communities don't want us to merge," Greens Leichhardt councillor Rochelle Porteous said on November 12.

She was commenting on the decision by Labor and Liberal councillors in the Leichhardt, Marrickville and Ashfield councils to endorse a "voluntary" merger of the three inner-west councils, under pressure from the state government.

At meetings on November 10, the Labor and Liberal councillors voted to support a merger, should the state government proceed with its draconian plan for compulsory council amalgamations across the city.

"We shouldn't be putting in a merger option," Porteous said. "They are saying the most important thing is not to be sacked. Well, it is very difficult to sack a council which is financially stable, doing a good job, and has a good standing with the community, which is the situation in Leichhardt."

After a report by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) that declared 71% of Sydney and 56% of regional councils "unfit" to continue alone, NSW Premier Mike Baird and local government minister Paul Toole announced in October that councils would be given 30 days, until November 18, to voluntarily amalgamate, "or else".

Some councils have opted to cave in to the government's ultimatum, but many NSW councils in Sydney and in regional areas have strengthened their resolve to fight the forced merger process. For example, the City of Sydney has adamantly rejected any proposal for amalgamation with nearby inner-city councils.

The Greens organised a public meeting of about 200 people at Balmain Town Hall on November 7 to discuss the amalgamation.

Greens MP David Shoebridge told the meeting: "In fact, IPART has given the tick to most local councils on almost all financial and operational criteria. Some 93% of Sydney councils have been given ticks.

“Does bigger necessarily mean more efficient councils? No. Rates have exploded in Victoria, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Auckland, NZ, where councils have been forcibly amalgamated.

“The NSW Constitution protects local government. The minister cannot just sack your council unilaterally and get away with it.”

Bill Jenkins, from the Save our Councils Coalition, said: “Our fight against these forced amalgamations is supported by the combined force of community groups. Any voluntary merger should be based on a referendum of each group of residents.

“There will be a big rally against the amalgamations outside State Parliament on Wednesday November 18, at 12pm. Buses of concerned residents are coming from the country and the unions are involved because of the threat to council jobs."

A representative of council workers told the meeting: “Council staff are facing the sack wholesale. We are not going to stand for this. It is high time local government was given proper legal status by being recognised in the federal constitution.”

In a Greens media statement on November 10, Porteous said: "Voting to amalgamate [is] a complete sell-out of our community. I have spoken to numerous people in recent days and they are extremely angry at what they see as a betrayal of trust by Labor councillors and the [Leichardt] lord mayor, Darcy Byrne.

"The $25 million bribe Baird is offering to councils that agree to amalgamate does not even cover the cost of amalgamating, which is estimated at a minimum of $33.5 million. The predicted savings after 10 years of $75 million are produced through sacking staff, removing most elected representation and selling off council property — possibly a town hall, a pool or a library. Rates for Leichhardt Council home owners would also go up.”

A leaflet distributed by Save Leichardt Council gave these reasons for the government's push for amalgamation: "Urban Growth want to rezone large parts of Leichhardt, Annandale and Camperdown to high rise development of up to 12 storeys.

"WestConnex want to push a private tollway into our area, compulsorily acquire local homes and local businesses, pollute our air, bring traffic congestion to our roads and destroy our parks.

"The Minister for Planning wants to remove planning powers from local government so that developers can build whatever they want in the Inner West.

"Of course Mike Baird wants to get rid of Leichhardt Council. We fight hard for the rights of our local community and as a council we have a well-deserved reputation for standing up to the ruinous plans of developers and state government bureaucrats."

For more information on the campaign, contact: saveleichhardtcouncil@gmail.com.

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