Bigger local government not necessarily better

The State Government now has several separate reviews into local government. But rather than focusing on real reform, the debate has been consumed by the idea of "mega amalgamations".

A proper reform process should focus on the functions of local government in the 21st century. It should then outline the most effective structure to ensure it can meet those functions and develop a comprehensive blueprint for moving to the new model.

Instead, the government has initiated a series of overlapping studies, reviews and legislative processes - a chaotic process that risks squandering the opportunity for positive reform.

We've got the Local Government (Early Intervention) Bill, which gives the minister open-ended authority to suspend local councils, the Treasury Corporation review of council finances, the White Paper planning reforms, which will radically change community input to local development, the Local Government Acts Review Taskforce and the Independent Local Government Review Panel.

The report prepared by the Independent Local Government Review panel needs massive legislative reform, but the discussion paper released by the Acts Review Taskforce only proposes minor legislative changes. This is obviously not working together.

Each review recognises the outstanding work of the City of Sydney, and lauds the city as a financially strong, well-run council. Yet one of them wants to put all that at risk by calling for a "greatly expanded City of Sydney" and a new "Super Sydney Council".'

The report points to Auckland as a model - yet Auckland has reportedly had to spend $100 million on the process of merging eight councils together. Surely childcare, transport, parks and pools is a better use of money?

And the Auckland mega-council is struggling with a massive debt forecast to almost treble to $12.5 billion over the next decade.

The report also proposes local boards, based on an Auckland model. But when the new Auckland Council was created, 21 local boards were established, each with about five to 12 elected members. The result was 170 politicians: 149 elected local board members, plus the mayor and 20 councillors. Is this what we really want for Sydney?

Another argument that only mega councils have the capacity to undertake projects such as light rail and cycleways is also wrong. The City of Sydney has already significantly invested in light rail and cycleways and shared our work with other councils. The real problem is that we are completely dependent on state government approval to get any action on those projects.

New York Mayor Bloomberg and I both started our bike networks at the same time. His was completed years ago while we are still waiting on the government to let us get on with ours. Without removing such political interference, local councils, no matter what their size, will always be hamstrung. We need real reform, not new boundaries.

As the saying goes, it's not how big it is, it's what you can do with it that counts.


(This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph, Thursday 16 May, 2013)

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