Yet another NSW government deadline looms today for local councils under the threat of amalgamation, and this time it looks likely to result in a number of significant amalgamations in Sydney and other large urban areas.
The Baird government has pursued a deliberate strategy to encourage councils to agree to amalgamations without using the full force of their legal power, through a combination of carrots (funding for councils agreeing to amalgamate) and sticks (the threat to immediately sack councils which they merge if they don’t cooperate). Up until the latest round of the process, most Sydney councils rejected amalgamation and insisted on standing alone.
With the release of the flawed Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) “Fit For the Future” report, which declared most Sydney councils to be ‘unfit’ due to their size despite giving them the tick on all financial criteria, the state government imposed today, 18 November, as another deadline for councils, with the clear threat of sacking for those councils which don’t consent to amalgamations.
It’s been very unclear as to how much power the state government has to implement amalgamations, short of passing legislation through a Legislative Council which at the moment is opposed to amalgamations. The government has some power to sack councils, and to refer changes to the boundaries commission, but whether they have the power to do this with councils which haven’t consented is unclear.
The Greens have argued that the state government doesn’t have this power, but they have also suggested it will be easier to do so if a council has given a stated preference for amalgamation, suggesting the question of the state government’s power is less clear – and clearly there are quite a few councils which don’t believe that the government doesn’t have the power to force through its agenda.
Councils have been asked to fill in a form indicating their preference for amalgamation, and they have only been given room to write 50 words explaining their decision. In numerous cases, councils have indicated that they agree to a particular amalgamation preference on the understanding that their preferred option remains to stand alone.
It’s hard to pull together information on which councils have made decisions, but here’s a summary of information I’ve found:
- Randwick and Waverley have previously agreed to amalgamate. Woollahra remains opposed to amalgamation – while the remaining existence of a Woollahra council doesn’t cause immediate problems for a new Randwick-Waverley council, Woollahra would be an unusually small council compared to its neighbours, making it a likely target for a forced amalgamation.
- Auburn, Burwood and Canada Bay councils have also previously agreed to amalgamate, but their amalgamation only really makes sense if Strathfield, which sits in the middle of the proposed council, is included. Strathfield is strongly opposed to any amalgamation.
- The City of Sydney remains strongly opposed to any merger, although Marrickville has indicated a second preference to merge with Sydney.
- Ashfield, Marrickville and Leichhardt have previously been opposed but the three councils all passed similar motions that indicate a preference for the three councils to merge, and the three mayors have met with the minister. The merger appears one of the most likely to proceed.
- Rockdale and Kogarah councils have indicated a preference for a merger of their two councils with Hurstville to create a St George regional council. Hurstville is open to merging with Kogarah but explicitly rejects a merger with Rockdale.
- Canterbury sits between the potential St George, Ashfield/Marrickville/Leichhardt and Auburn/Burwood/Canada Bay mergers, but is not part of any of them. It could merge with Bankstown, but it would be an awkward shape for a council. I think it’s likely Canterbury will survive unscathed.
- The Hills council continues to campaign for a hostile takeover of its neighbour Hawkesbury, and Hawkesbury continues to resist.
- Warringah continues to be strongly supportive of a single Northern Beaches council, taking in its northern neighbour Pittwater and southern neighbour Manly. Both its neighbours prefer to stand alone, but they have both indicated a second preference to split Warringah between them to create Greater Pittwater and Greater Manly. The planning minister, Pittwater MP Rob Stokes, has advocated for the abolish-Warringah option.
- Holroyd remains strongly opposed to any merger, which would presumably be with Parramatta. It’s unclear where Parramatta stands on such a change.
- There’s a series of small councils on the lower north shore, stretching from Hunters Hill to Mosman. As far as I can tell, none of them have expressed an amalgamation preference, with North Sydney gearing up for a fight.
- The two Central Coast councils of Gosford and Wyong, which already cover quite large areas and quite large populations, have agreed to merge. This isn’t a backup option if standing alone is rejected – it’s their first preference.
- It was previously assumed that Newcastle and Lake Macquarie were being pushed together to form a Greater Newcastle council which would take a majority of its population from Lake Macquarie, but neither council prefers that option. Lake Macquarie expressed a preference for merging with Wyong, but Wyong has indicated a preference for merging with Gosford, leaving Lake Macquarie on its own.
- Last night, Newcastle Council voted against voluntarily amalgamating, but expressed a backup preference for a merger with Port Stephens.
This is basically Lake Macquarie’s position:
Feel free to use this comment thread to discuss what comes after today’s deadline.