OPINION: Council merger will spoil what is working

THE release of Lake Macquarie City Council’s response to the recommendations in the Independent Local Government Review Panel’s final report has brought the issue of council amalgamations back into sharp focus in the Hunter Region.
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This persistent theme in local government in NSW will not go away, even though consultation undertaken by the panel itself indicates most of the Hunter’s population is not supportive of amalgamation.

As mayor of Lake Macquarie and representative on the Local Government NSW Board of Directors, doing what is best for local government in NSW is of the highest priority, but of even more importance is what is best for the people of Lake Macquarie. In this matter, those goals are the same.

What we need to be doing is making sure that we build stronger and more sustainable councils through appropriate processes and structural changes.

What continues to be alarming is the recommendation put forward by the panel to amalgamate Lake Macquarie and Newcastle councils, and to move Morisset and Wyee into either Wyong Council or a new Central Coast Council.

Why alarming? It is so because the recommendations came despite strong evidence against such moves, provided in previous submissions.

The simple fact is that the proposed southern boundary changes and amalgamation of Lake Macquarie and Newcastle city councils is not feasible, not necessary, and would be detrimental to the community.

Lake Macquarie is a significant city in its own right; a city whose 200,000 residents identify themselves with an impressive lake and who, regardless of whether they live in a town, village or coastal suburb, north, south, east or west of our lake, associate their neighbourhood, their lifestyle and their sense of identity as being intrinsically linked to Lake Macquarie.

Another aspect of the strong evidence shown against amalgamation is the point that the cities of Lake Macquarie and Newcastle are very different. Each has different requirements and systems of government, which determine the core services and plans delivered by each council.

Lake Macquarie offers a healthy work-life balance. The philosophy is ingrained in many of the employers, workers and families of the city. Business practices, costs and strains differ between Lake Macquarie and Newcastle, as does traffic.

There are more open spaces in Lake Macquarie, particularly more accessible bushland. Housing density is naturally different between the cities, overall.

Lake Macquarie council is performing strongly and is well placed to provide good-quality daily services that all our residents expect and rely on.

As stated, whenever council has been asked to make a submission, Lake Macquarie council meets the requirements for a sustainable and efficient council with effective strategic capacity to lead the city and enhance the lifestyle and liveability of our communities through high-quality governance and first-rate service delivery.

For several years, Lake Macquarie has been improving its efficiency and working towards financial sustainability, something IPART and NSW Treasury Corporation have recognised.

Arguments continue to rage between those who promote larger (in population) local government areas as a means to more efficient and effective service delivery, and those who believe local democracy is best served by smaller councils.

There are many very well-run councils, large, medium and small, that handle their circumstances very well. The well-run councils, no matter their size, always outperform the not-so well-run councils, no matter their size.

Compare the performance of Lake Macquarie or Newcastle against Brisbane, with a population of 1.1million, or Gold Coast City, which amalgamated with Albert Shire Council about 20 years ago and has a population of 536,000. Looking at the figures from last year’s audited financial statements, there is a clear and significant variation in performances of these councils.

Lake Macquarie council operates with 4.5 employees per 1000 residents, while Brisbane, Gold Coast and Newcastle councils operate with 6.2, 6.1 and 6.1 employees per capita respectively.

Lake Macquarie has the lowest operating expense per capita of these examples, while Newcastle has the highest.

So why there is this push that “bigger is probably better” is a mystery – there is little evidence to prove it.

The proposed southern boundary changes and amalgamation of Lake Macquarie and Newcastle city councils is not feasible, not necessary, and would be detrimental to the community – and there is vast evidence to prove it.

Jodie Harrison is the mayor of Lake Macquarie.

Jodie Harrison

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