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LOCAL COUNCILS LOCK HORNS

Published:
24/09/2016
Author:
Think Local

Based on a three-year indepenent review of local  government, the state government's Fit For The Future  reform program is a $1 billion project aimed at improving the sustainability of metropolitan councils.

But put more simply, it is about widespread council amalgamations, and on the Northern Beaches this has caused a fairly substantial neighbourly dispute.

Not unlike the South and North Korean soldiers eyeing each other off from either side of the demilitarised zone, you can just imagine Manly and Warringah Council staffers lining the banks of Burnt Bridge Creek in defence of their territory; albeit with media releases and independent reports as opposed to kalashnikovs.

In summary, the Fit for the Future report, released in September 2014, concluded that larger councils are more financially sustainable than smaller ones. The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) has since been enlisted to ascertain which councils have the scale and capacity necessary not to have to merge.

A 'scale target' of 250,000 residents was put in place by IPART for each new 'mega' council and metropolitan councils with a smaller population than that are in the crosshairs.

Unsurprisingly, with Warringah boasting a population of Approximately 150,000, Pittwater with 60,000 and Manly with 40,000, IPART advised that a total amalgamation on the peninsula was the most viable option going forward. The three councils have had nine months to prepare their submissions, which were due on June 30.

Manly and Pittwater have been steadfast in their desire to remain independent and, in their submissions, they will argue they are fit to do so. They will also consider the two council model, which splits the Warringah local government area in half to create a Greater Pittwater and Greater Manly.         

Warringah, on the other hand, is lobbying for the full amalgamation - a Northern Beaches Council. Needless to say, Warringah's stance on the matter hasn’t helped its relationship with both Manly and Pittwater.

There is particularly bad blood between Manly and Warringah, with both councils believing the other is looking to encroach on their land.

Warringah's concern stems from Manlys endorsement of the Greater Manly/Greater Pittwater option, while Manly believes Warringah's request for a merger is a blatant takeover strategy.

"From reading between the lines, IPART may accept a voluntary merger between Manly and Warringah and we've put that offer on the table to Manly, to set up a Manly-Warringah Council” Warringah mayor Michael Regan reveals to Peninsula Living.

"They just said 'No, we're going to tell the government we're status quo‘, and that’s why l'm very blunt and scathing in my comments about our neighbours - that their consultation process is disingenuous.

 "They have already said they are going to tell the government they want no change but if they're forced then they’ll say 'Lets split Warringah up next door and we'll divvy up the Spoils and prop up our own underperforming councils. They haven't even mentioned the Manly-Warringah option.”

Manly mayor Jean Hay makes no apology for refusing to consider the merger.

"The bottom line is that any financial benefit that could arise from merging with our neighbours isn't significant enough to justify opposing the Manly community's long-held stance against council amalgamations,” she tells Peninsula Living.

General manager of Manly Council Henry Wong, adds to this sentiment, saying it would be detrimental to Manly residents.

"If you look at what Manly does as a council, and compare that to what Warringah does as a council, its chalk and cheese,” Mr Wong states.

"It’s also a discussion about the concentration of power because they know 44,000 into 152000 doesn't count. so when you move Manly into Warringah, guess what? The geopolitical centre of ravity will move north - it's purely numbers.

"If you add Pittwater into it as I said to my staff, ’The centre of gravity of this whole region will then be closer to Gosford than it will be to the spit.”

Mr Wong was also quick to scoff at Warringah‘s report which estimates an amalgamation would result in savings of $300 million over a 10-year period.

"When they talk about these enormous, whopping savings that they're going to get out of amalgamation, well I'm sorry but that is fanciful. I could pull that number out any day of the week and you don't have to justify it" he says.

However, above all Mr Wong stresses the focus shouldn't be on population.

"The only issue that Warringah latches onto is population, well population should not be the determining factor of the size of local government," he says.

"Which other council on the peninsula welcomes eight million visitors per year? Which other council in Sydney welcomes eight million people a year?"

Pittwater Council, which formed out of Warringah close to 25 years ago, also believes Warringah's financial projection is suspect, but more importantly, each councils' local identity will be compromised with a full amalgamation.

"Even when they threw out those ridiculous figures of $300 million... all these numbers are fictitious, they're only theoretical” says Pittwater Council’s general manager, Mark Ferguson.

“But regardless of the figures, we don't want our residents to lose their sense of community, environmental management, planning, influence on decisions and ability to participate with the local council.. the amalgamation will make it more of a regional government than a local government."

Mr Ferguson is also aware that the opposing views of the councils could play against them.

"The difficulty we have is that the premier and the minister are saying the status quo is either not an option or not sustainable, so the risk the councils have in digging in to stay as we are is that we might get forced into something that may not be the best option," he says.

Mayor Regan says Premier Baird will have to follow through with amalgamation in his Manly electorate, or risk causing upheaval across the state.

"In Western Australia when they did all this, a very similar process, the premier there tried to look after his own patch by keeping the status quo in his own backyard. The other ministers then said, 'Well if it's good enough for you, Mr Premier, why can't you do it in our backyard as well?‘ and it all went pear shaped," Mayor Regan says.

"It'll be interesting to hear what [Premier Baird] says, but IPART has already recommended one council. So if the government says, ‘Well, we can‘t do that', and play politics, I assure you it will all fall over because the Lane Coves, the Rydes, the Hunters Hills, the Eastern Suburbs will all be saying, 'Well, hang on - if it's good enough for the premier, it should be good enough for us too'."

The state government is expected to announce its decision in October.

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