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Issue #1591      May 1, 2013

Removing the “local” from local government

NSW residents face higher municipal rates, increased charges for services, and pensioners stand to lose their council and water rates concessions as the O’Farrell government embarks on a complete transformation of local government. Residents will have even less voice in local developments under new powers being given to the Minister and a new round of council amalgamations. The misleadingly named NSW Independent Local Government Review’s discussion paper released last week is just one step in a process that will remove the “local” from local government.

Willoughby Council Library – how will the amalgamation of councils affect local services.

“I believe what we are witnessing is a radical change to a neo-liberal state government apparatus and the O’Farrell government has been drowning the electorate in Reviews, Taskforces, consultation papers to an extent that no-one who isn’t totally dedicated to such things could possibly keep up,” Greens Sydney City Councillor Irene Doutney told The Guardian.

“The State is drowning us in faux consultation so it can say ‘it has consultation at its heart’ but it is meaningless when it becomes indigestible. It is also worth noting that this discussion paper comes against the background of the Intervention (Local Government) Act, A New Local Government Act for NSW, the Planning White Paper and the Metropolitan Strategy – all complex and far-reaching plans.”

Appointed administrators

The Early Intervention legislation empowers the Minister for Local Government to issue performance improvement orders to councils, if not satisfied with their decisions or other areas of performance. Failure to meet the minister’s orders can result in suspension of the elected council for three months (renewable for another three months) and the appointment of interim administrator(s) “to exercise all the functions of the council”.

In other words, the minister could suspend a council, appoint an administrator who could then pass all the development applications that council might have rejected.

All it would take is for a couple of pro-developer councillors to disrupt meetings and the minister claim the council was dysfunctional as an excuse for suspension and have a hand-picked administrator proceed with development applications or even amalgamation with other councils.

It should not be forgotten how another Liberal Premier forced amalgamations on Victorian councils ten years ago. Jeff Kennett sacked all the elected councils and hired his own men to take over and do the dirty work, including mass sackings of workers, contracting out services and forced amalgamations.

No community consultation

O’Farrell has plans to remove any say by residents over what is built in their locality, with a system that takes 10 days for building approvals. That’s what the neo-liberals call bureaucratic inefficiencies!

“This plan will tear the heart out of community consultation and is a direct betrayal of the O’Farrell government’s pre-election promise to return planning powers to the community,” Greens MP and planning spokesperson, David Shoebridge said.

The review provides the basis for the amalgamation of metropolitan councils into super councils.

“Many councils are performing very well. However, on the whole our investigations and consultations have revealed a local government sector that is weighed down with too many out-of-date ideas, attitudes and relationships. ... at the heart of the problem we still have too many councils chasing too little revenue”, Professor Sansom, the chair of the Local Government Review Panel said.

Such “out-of-date ideas” as community involvement, providing local employment, environmental protection and social justice are definitely on the hit list.

Amalgamations

“Amalgamations of the sort being suggested in the Future Directions for Local Government Paper, where council areas are increased to cover around 800,000 residents, will distance local government further from the communities they were elected to represent,” Greens Councillor Irene Doutney told The Guardian.

“It is hard enough to deal with a quarter of that many people in a dense environment let alone to cover huge areas of vastly different environments. In the case of Sydney this would take in everything from the harbour to the coast including Port Botany and Sydney International Airport, a huge area with greatly different demographics, economics, environments and needs. How this will work is barely understood.”

It can only work in favour of the big developers and the transnational corporations that pick up fat contracts to provide council services, maintain roads, etc.

Beyond metropolitan Sydney, the plan is for 30 county or regional councils. The Panel claims that mergers would promote stronger local communities. At the same time, it gives de facto recognition to that lie, by proposing Local Boards to replace small councils which would be closer to the people.

The Review states clearly that these Local Boards would not constitute a fourth layer of government. They would be “a new type of elected, community-based local government unit with limited responsibilities delegated from a local council or County Council.” In other words, Clayton’s councils with no real power to determine developments in their locality, designed to give a warm fuzzy feeling of closeness while being kept in the dark.

The Panel asserts without any evidence that super councils are required to create stronger, more capable councils and financial viability. Yet, economies of scale can be and are already being achieved through forms of co-operation between smaller councils without the necessity to merge.

Further from the people

Councils have traditionally been closer to the people than other forms of government. It has been possible for working class people to be elected with a relatively small budget, on the basis of their local work and reputation.

Each round of amalgamations reduces the number of councils in an area and increases dramatically the ratio of people to councillors. Instead of 600 or 1,000 votes to represent a community, it could require 30,000 or even 50,000 votes to be elected.

The costs, financial and social, of amalgamations are quite considerable – replacement and integration of IT systems, relocation of staff, sackings, closure of facilities, loss of local services, etc.

In the 1993 council amalgamations there was a tendency to make regulations uniform. For example, the enlarged Sydney City Council ran roughshod over existing building regulations in the suburbs it took over. Building height restrictions were lifted overnight.

Charges to rise

The Panel recognises that councils need more funds. Government policy has forced a number of councils into a precarious situation by making more demands of them at the same time as limiting rate increases. The rate pegging cap under the 1993 Local Government Act limits the annual increase in rates to a certain percentage determined by the government. In 2011-12 it was 2.8 percent and 2.6 percent the previous year.

While the Review suggests easing this cap, it expects the newly amalgamated councils to raise more funds than before. The additional money will not come from state government grants but from increasing charges (eg use of sports facilities, community services, waste management, water, sewerage, use of roads, parking metres), and imposing charges on free services (eg libraries).

Pensioners and other concession cardholders will lose their current concessions on council rates, waste management, water and sewerage – costing them up to $425 more per annum. It even makes proposals for how they can go into debt – that’s if they are not driven out of their homes!

Dispelling the myths

What these amalgamations have in common is the reduction in local involvement, the advancement of developers’ interests with scant regard for the consequences for local communities, the environment, traffic flows and people’s needs and decline in quality and availability of services.

The contracting out of services, introduction of fees and other measures in the name of efficiencies and sound management have failed to serve the community. They have lined the pockets of corrupt councillors and the corporations being given the contracts.

Thousands of local jobs have been lost and deunionised. The transnational corporations contracted to provide services do not necessarily employ local labour or use local businesses. They cut conditions, lock out the union where they can and take short cuts.

Where the Greens, and left and progressive councillors have stood up to the developers and attempted to meet the needs of their constituencies they have often been thwarted by state government intervention in favour of the ruling party’s developer mates who line their electoral coffers.

Services have become less personal, the councils are not as responsive to people’s needs and general managers are gradually taking on many of the decision-making roles of elected councillors. This is set to worsen.

National agenda

Developments in NSW follow on from a first round of amalgamations in 1993. The process is part of a wider agenda, which is being implemented across Australia. Other state governments are preparing to launch a second round of amalgamations and reforms.

So where is all of this heading? The long-term aim is to create large regional bodies which alongside federalism would eventually see the replacement of the states by these large regional bodies (super councils or provinces).

Electoral reforms required

The Sydney City Council mayor is elected directly by residents. This is the path being pushed by the Panel. With super councils, the chances of workers and candidates from smaller parties being elected are considerably diminished. They might be well known in their locality but to compete across such large electorates, could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – the sort of money only those with big business backers can raise.

That is one of the reasons why electoral reform is required to ensure that a proportional system of representation is used, with preferably three or more councillors elected from each ward or district. This also results in a better reflection of diversity in the council area.

The right of recall of councillors, as well as state MPs, would provide a means to act against corruption, incompetence, bad policies and broken pre-election promises.

Stricter controls over developers are required, including a greater say by local communities and their elected representatives. Local government is a crucial voice for local communities, particularly in rural and regional areas. It deserves real empowerment and independence.

Residents of NSW have an opportunity to send in their views on the Local Government Review. The Panel’s Future Directions consultation covers visits to 29 regional cities and towns and 8 locations in the Sydney metropolitan area from May 9 to June 14. For details visit: localgovernmentreview.nsw.gov.au  

Next article – No bank deposits will be spared confiscation

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