The role of local government in each state has expanded considerably over the last two to three decades, reflecting dramatic social, environmental and economic changes that have left their mark on all aspects of governance. Local government continues to grapple with increasing community demands and expectations for more and better services and a desire to be involved in the development of their local communities. The belief that councils are only about ‘roads, rates and rubbish’ is clearly acknowledged as outdated.
For local governments to meet these increasing societal needs in an increasingly complex world is a critical area for ongoing debate and reform across the nation. Unfortunately, often the first and only response from the public and governments to local government reform is to take an economic rationalist approach and force amalgamations.
But does a rush to amalgamate deliver sustainable outcomes and is the discussion on amalgamation too narrow and missing the point thereby becoming a threat to the effectiveness of local government in the longer term.
To ‘amalgamate’ is a process it is not an outcome! It may be appropriate to use this process to achieve a desired end state but we should be concentrating the debate and resources on what the desired end state should be. The focus must be on creating sustainable cities. That is, communities that can sustain themselves across the quadruple bottom line (Social, Economic, Environmental and Governance) factors now and in the future.
This idea is reinforced by a report for the New South Wales Legislative Council on local government amalgamations which found “that amalgamations do not necessarily lead to greater efficiencies and economies of scale. Neither academic experts, bureaucrats nor those councils who had experienced amalgamations could demonstrate that there was an economic benefit to amalgamations” (Report 19, General Purpose Standing Committee, page ix, 2003), and here we are back in this space in 2016!
I don’t believe there is a magical number of residents that make an appropriate size for local governments. I’ve heard numbers of 40,000 – 50,000 up to 100,000 banded around but none of these figures are based on any firm research or facts. Is the representation ratio for instance of 12,934 residents per councillor good in the City of Stirling as opposed to 220 residents per councillor at the Shire of Peppermint Grove? It could be suggested that both are wrong!
Many complex issues should be considered when debating appropriate local government size. Factors like the effects on social capital and an individual’s sense of belonging, the appropriate amount of representation for citizens, the possible negative influence of minority groups in small local governments, economic sustainability, the need for town centres and community of interests, citizen required product and service needs, the ability to gain grant funding, demographic trends, physical and topographical features and importantly the mix of residential to commercial properties just to name a few.
The chairperson of the report into NSW local government amalgamations stated, “people from all walks of life, in both city and country, voiced their concerns about a declining sense of community in today’s world. Many people see their council as integral to community spirit. They feel that a larger local government body will lead to a loss of social capital and that smaller councils engender a sense of belonging”. This concept is further reinforced by Harvard Professor Robert Putman in his research.
I believe too much focus has been given to the process and not the desired outcomes. The narrow economic rationalists view will not deliver what our communities demand of us, so let’s start looking at what will create good communities – whatever the size. Let’s look at how the three tiers of government work and how to make them more effective, let’s look at local government potentially being the delivery arm for state and federal governments as an example, lets properly fund local government rather than the 3% of GST when we own 11% of the nation's assets and much more . . . let’s really talk about how to make better cities that engage the people. After all, communities and societies are judged not by the most successful business person, or who has the lowest rates but how it looks after those in need: physically, mentally, socially and economically!
Do I think amalgamations are necessary – possibly . . . but let’s do it in a smart way from the citizen’s perspective rather than ours. After all people are more important than dollars!