(2pm, Tuesday 28 May 2013, SMC Conference & Function Centre, Sydney)
Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you to discuss our response to Future Directions for NSW Local Government: Twenty Essential Steps.
I am providing an overview of the position of the Mayors of six of the seven existing council areas which your report proposes to group together into a single "super Sydney council area". The six councils are Botany, Leichhardt, the City of Sydney, Randwick, Waverley and Woollahra.
We represent a diversity of social and economic conditions, governance structures, sizes and political perspectives. My Mayoral colleagues will each expand on the particular circumstances of your area, and the potential impacts of your recommendations.
Despite this diversity, we share a strong conviction that local government best serves its communities when it is truly "local" in character.
We firmly believe that the proposed super Sydney Council would lose this "local" character and would not deliver any meaningful benefits to the communities we serve. We do not believe that the Panel has put forward a compelling, evidence-based case for change. We therefore wish to make clear that we have no interest in a voluntary merger as proposed by the Panel.
Our concerns and views are set out in our signed joint submission which focusses on the issues of amalgamations and regional structures. It contains five parts:
- Our view of the purpose of local government, which provides context for our assessment of the case for amalgamation as made by the Panel.
- Our response to the case for amalgamations made by the Panel
- The alternatives to amalgamation, including strengthened Regional Organisations of Council.
- The proposal for local boards; and
- Ensuring the community has a voice in reform.
The Panel has failed to put forward a compelling, evidence-based case for change. It has also failed to consider the risks of change. It has not provided a business case that demonstrates the significant transition costs of creating the super council would be outweighed by the benefits.
Most significantly, the Panel has failed to address the purpose and role of local government.
We believe that fundamental role of democratically elected local councils is to provide leadership and governance for their area. Local government is not just an administrative outpost of the State Government to simply deliver services delegated to it by the state.
Local Government is the level of government closest to the community and must have the authority and capacity to identify community needs and aspirations; set strategic priorities, and develop effective plans to implement them.
This understanding of the purpose of local government helps to explain our concerns regarding amalgamations. Amalgamations into large local government areas of 600,000-800,000 residents will inevitably lead to a reduced sense of local control:
- decision making will become more remote from residents and ratepayers,
- opportunities for direct contact with political leaders and senior staff will be reduced; and
- The sense of common interest with fellow residents will be diminished.
The claim that the Sydney's status and reputation as a global city requires an expansion of the City of Sydney's boundaries lacks substance. There is no evidence that Sydney is not rightfully regarded as one of the world's great cities. Nothing in the literature on global cities indicates that local government structures are critical to the effectiveness or competitiveness of a global city. Information contained in our submission about global cities show the opposite.
While the Panel refers to Auckland and Brisbane, the Panel makes no mention of Sydney's major local competitor - the City of Melbourne. Melbourne has a similar sized local government population to the City of Sydney, but covers a smaller area and includes far fewer inner-suburban areas.
There is no guarantee that amalgamations will deliver benefits. Our submission includes worrying information about the effects of the recent creation of Auckland as a super Council. As a result of Council mergers, Auckland could be facing a debt as large as $12.6 billion by 2021-2022, and the NZ Auditor General has warned that that this debt could be increased further if some of the assumptions the Council has made in its long term plan are incorrect.
The City's own experience and track record demonstrates that size is irrelevant to strategic capacity. At the City of Sydney we've developed a longterm strategic plan, Sustainable Sydney 2030, in close consultation with our community. We've done the research and now we are carrying out the work.
This demonstrates that the report is mistaken in its belief that only a super council can engage in significant strategic planning to undertake regional projects such as light rail and cycleways.
We at the City of Sydney we are already significantly investing in cycleways to support the introduction of light rail. We share 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.
Without the ability to get on with projects without State Government political interference, local councils will always be hamstrung no matter what their size is.
The Panel's suggestions for new governance structures risk creating additional layers of bureaucracy and additional tiers of government.
The proposed County Council model risks being a "stealth amalgamation process". It could lead to County Councils swallowing up the vast majority of key local government functions, rather than these functions being the responsibility of a directly elected Council.
The Panel's proposal for local boards presents an inevitable dilemma.
If the boards with little power or responsibility, and no resources to take action on behalf of their communities they will be little more than a sop to local representation. Yet giving boards real authority and resources would create a fourth tier of government and an additional layer of bureaucracy.
We are united in our view that any major reform of local government structures and boundaries should be done democratically. There must be a clear process for allowing residents and ratepayers to be heard. These views must be considered and taken into account. We are deeply concerned that the Panel's recommendations include no provision for this.
We are committed to ensuring our local communities are heard if the proposal for a "super Sydney" council progresses any further.