Back in 1994, the local government sector in Victoria underwent a period of unprecedented reform as then premier Jeff Kennett replaced 1,600 elected councilors with handpicked commissioners and slashed the number of local councils operating within the state from 210 to 78.
Whilst Kennett’s move has been the most radical thus far, local council mergers have been a hot topic across several states. More than 70 per cent of Queensland’s local government areas, for example, underwent amalgamation in 2008. Whilst the state government in Western Australia abandoned plans to halve the number of metropolitan councils in Perth last year, that in Tasmania is encouraging voluntary mergers. Most recently, late last year, the government in New South Wales announced plans to consolidate 152 councils into 112, including reducing the number of metropolitan councils in Sydney from 43 to 25.
From the viewpoint of property sector, the most obvious benefit associated with fewer, larger councils revolves around a reduction in the burden associated with having to deal with different processes across multiple municipal boundaries. Furthermore, councils themselves would derive a number of benefits associated with the greater levels of scale which amalgamations would deliver, Property Council of Australia (NSW Division) executive director Glen Byres argues. These include the ability to develop stronger and more robust balance sheets, greater capacity to adopt a more strategic focus and the ability to attract a more professional class of management.
“We’ve always thought that the biggest dividends in terms of having bigger councils are twofold,” Byres said.
“One, by having councils of scale, they will be able to focus upon strategic challenges facing our cities. We know the rate of growth in our big capital cities requires a huge amount of forward thinking by every level of government but especially local government to guide us in that growth. Having councils that are strategically focused rather than just solely thinking about small patches of turf and that can participate in the challenges that we’ve got in our capital cities around providing for that growth (would be a significant advantage).”
“The other thing is that (local councils) will have a scale and capability (under amalgamations) in terms of resourcing themselves and being able deliver the local infrastructure and services which the community expects through having a stronger balance sheet.”
Not all, however, agree. University of England Professor Brian Dollery, a consultant on structural reform and amalgamation within Australian governments, acknowledges challenges associated with different processes across multiple councils along with the need for strategic focus when dealing with developments which impact upon multiple jurisdictions. Nevertheless, he argues, there are ways to address these matters aside from municipal mergers. Inconsistent processes, he argues, could be more directly addressed through state level policy to mandate similar processes and forms across all councils. As for the need for strategic vision, this can be addressed through bodies such as the Greater London Authority in London and the Greater Sydney Commission in Sydney, he adds.
Moreover, Dollery says, larger councils diminish the community voice’s in a number of ways. First, he says, they tend to feature lower councillor to constituent ratios (in Brisbane City, for example, 26 councillors service a population of more than one million people), leading to a situation in which the proportion of councillors who are known on a personal level by their constituents is diminished. From individual community members, Dollery says, this makes engaging with councils and councillors more difficult.
More fundamentally, he says, larger councils tend to attract a higher number of candidates who harbour ambitions to move into state or federal politics and are aligned with major political parties. Compared with their typical counterparts in smaller municipalities, Dollery argues, these types of councillors have a stronger incentive to remain on good terms with the development lobby (from which major parties receive significant donations) and thus may tend to operate in a manner which is more favourable to the sector when dealing with planning matters and development applications. Indeed, it is this, Dollery believes, which lies behind a significant part of the development lobby’s push for local government amalgamations.
Roberta Ryan, director of the UTS Centre for Local Government and Australian Centre for Excellence for Local Government at the University of Sydney, adopts a less cynical approach. Issues associated with strategic vision are a genuine area of concern for the property sector, Ryan argues, as are differing processes and rules across municipal boundaries. In some circumstances, she says, a reasonable argument could be made that the greater scale associated with local council mergers might help in these areas.
Nevertheless, she stresses that there are broader issues at play, including the need for councils, the community and the property sector to engage more actively at front-end planning stages. Mergers are one way through which issues could be addressed, but are not the only way and should be considered as part of a bigger picture involving better processes and more proactive engagement, she argues. Indeed, Ryan insists, evidence about the effectiveness of amalgamations in terms of addressing a fragmented system of governance is actually quite mixed. It is not clear, for instance, whether processes in Victoria (with fewer councils) are in fact more or less efficient compared with those in New South Wales, she says.
On the community side, Ryan said one area of potential concern which councillors themselves had identified with larger municipalities revolved around challenges associated with representing a larger and more diverse constituent base with less homogeneous aspirations and attitudes. Nevertheless, she insists that there is no research to suggest that larger councils engage any less effectively than smaller ones. In research which the Centre had conducted, for example, residents in communities such as Brisbane (population 1.089 million) or Blacktown in New South Wales (340,000) had not indicated any lower levels of sentiment with regard to feelings of being adequately and suitably represented at the local level from a democratic perspective compared with residents in smaller councils, she said.
Byres agrees with this latter point, and points to Brisbane and Sydney as examples about how larger councils can run extensive and effective community consultation. In fact, he suggests, the larger scale associated with mergers may indeed lead to this process being done with greater levels of professionalism.
As for arguments about large councils being developer friendly, Byres points to Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore as an example of someone who has been able to successfully champion the cause of the community whilst simultaneously supporting development.
“I don’t think anyone would regard Clover Moore as being a ‘soft touch’ on development,” he said.
Around much of Australia, a push on the part of the development sector for fewer, larger councils is on.
Whether or not this is beneficial from the point of view of the built environment, it appears, is subject largely to different points of view.