Fixing our councils

EVERYBODY agrees that local government in NSW needs to be reformed, but getting agreement on how to achieve that goal is no easy matter.

At the Destinations 2036 conference in Dubbo last August, councils discussed the major issues that confront them, listing infrastructure maintenance and financial stability among their biggest problems.

The government has responded to these and other concerns by establishing a local government review panel that is consulting councils and communities about the nature of possible reforms.

As usual, one of the main ideas being put forward is amalgamation. By joining two or more councils into a larger unit, it is argued, duplication of staff, services and equipment can be minimised, freeing resources for more productive use.

It’s a compelling point of view, and one that Hunter councils have already embraced to a certain extent. Indeed, the Hunter has already tasted amalgamation, with Upper Hunter Shire Council created in 2009 from the former Scone Shire and parts of the former Merriwa and Murrurundi shires.

While stopping short of that big step, other councils in the region have been co-operating in many ways. By combining to make large purchases and by sharing expensive plant and equipment, councils have been trying to get the benefits of amalgamation without the costs.

Those costs, while not easy to measure in dollar terms, are potentially significant.

Amalgamation

The great virtue of local government is its proximity to its constituents. Local government is – or should be – accessible, transparent and accountable at the most grass-roots of levels.

Amalgamating councils runs the risk of diluting all those factors, with the most likely losers those constituents who live in the least populous areas.

No review of local government and its problems should ignore some of the warning signs that have been emerging from a number of Hunter councils in recent years.

In some, relationships between elected representatives and salaried executives have soured alarmingly. The ‘‘code of conduct’’ complaints system has become a farce and should be overhauled.

A perception exists that many councils may not be achieving the best possible value for money in purchasing and contract administration and serious questions have been raised over the ability of councillors to scrutinise tender processes.

When some councils are challenged to save money it seems hard to avoid a nagging suspicion that at least some bureaucracies may be more concerned with self-preservation than tackling the real issues.

While these issues and perceptions remain unaddressed it may be difficult to sell the idea of amalgamations. It has not been unknown in the Hunter for local government staff ‘‘rationalisations’’ to cost large sums of money without producing appreciable reductions in personnel.

Local government is ripe for reform, but it may be more profitable to fine tune some of the results of past changes before moving on to the inevitable next stage.

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