Keep the “Local” in Newcastle and Port Stephens

Therese Doyle and Michael Osborne

newcastle nobbys
Newcastle and Port Stephens are separate local government areas with their own distinctive features. Port Stephens is a rural, tourism-based community with many small towns, while Newcastle is an increasingly cosmopolitan city with diverse cultures and increasingly dense population.

No residents of either area have publicly expressed a desire to amalgamate their councils; nor have any community groups, businesses, unions, churches, clubs, sports groups or other entities advocated amalgamation. The proposed merger of the two councils is now simply a convenient face-saving device for the NSW state government after the demise of their ill-conceived move to form a megacouncil between Newcastle and Lake Macquarie.

Let’s be clear, a merger between Port Stephens and Newcastle councils will result in a significant reduction in local democratic representation, especially for the residents of Port Stephens, who were told last November that they were safe from merger threats. The ratio of residents to councillors will increase significantly for both communities, but markedly in Port Stephens.

The NSW state government has no mandate for the proposal to amalgamate Newcastle with Port Stephens. For a council amalgamation to have any legitimacy, it should only proceed where residents and ratepayers of each local government area have voted in favour of amalgamation in a valid referendum.

The minister, says in his introduction to the proposal to merge the two councils “Four years of extensive consultation, research and analysis have demonstrated that change is needed in local government to strengthen local communities”. Mr Toole’s claim has no basis in fact.

The State Government has not conducted any effective community-based consultation. Indeed, public hearings have only just commenced in the 11th hour of the process: residents can speak for a few minutes in a public, government-sponsored public forum held in out-of-sight out-of-mind venues.

Local communities will certainly not be “strengthened” by the proposed merger. The merger will create a more centralised and remote council bureaucracy that will be less accessible to most people and offer fewer services.

The government’s merger proposal for Newcastle and Port Stephens confidently asserts that savings of $65 million will be made over 20 years by reducing senior management staff numbers, redeploying “back office” and administrative functions, efficiencies made through increased purchasing power and finally through reductions in elected official numbers. Trouble is, nowhere is it clearly demonstrated that these objectives and minimal savings will be achieved. The government has repeatedly refused to release the full report by KPMG, the financial consulting firm on whose analysis these figures are based.

We do know that the mergers will mean significant staff losses and a reduction in regional employment opportunities. Both councils will lose important local knowledge and high level expertise that will go when those council officers are dispensed with. This is no trivial consideration in a region that is suffering a significant economic downturn.

Councils used to be places that offered important local training and development opportunities, especially for communities with diverse needs. Sadly, that is increasingly not the case and will be much less so with a merged council. That adds up to a less responsive, not a more responsive council.

The research and recommendations of highly respected academic and industry experts who have cautioned against forced mergers have been ignored.

Professor Brian Dollery, Director of the Centre for Local Government at UNE states that “anyone who still believes that compulsory council consolidation will somehow lead to financial sustainability in local government, with more efficient councils, lower costs and substantial scale economies, has not bothered to acquaint themselves with the vast empirical literature on amalgamation”.

Percy Allen, Secretary of the NSW Treasury and Chair of the NSW Treasury Corporation between 1985 and 1994, points out in his November 2015 NSW Merger Progress Report that “amalgamating councils into a monolithic behemoth won’t encourage flexibility and agility” and, furthermore will not address the more fundamental problem of “prolonged underfunding of essential infrastructure assets”.

The Independent Local Government Review Panel itself has also conceded that “There is no direct, general relationship between council size and the efficiency of service delivery” and that mergers in themselves “will not produce worthwhile cost savings”.

Newcastle and Port Stephens are very different communities with distinct geographic identities – they should not be cobbled.

Despite bold assertions to the contrary “bigger” is not necessarily “better”. This merger should be stopped in its tracks.

Therese Doyle is a Greens Councillor on Newcastle City Council.

Michael Osborne is Greens Councillor and deputy Lord Mayor of Newcastle City Council.

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