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Think Local

Professor Dennis Bobyn is not in a mood to mince words.

"February 14th - we call it the St Valentine's Day massacre," the spokesman for Mosman Against Forced Amalgamation says, his voice angry with disbelief.

A day earlier, expectations had been running high for Prof Bobyn and other anti-amalgamation campaigners across the North Shore, who believed the new premier may throw out plans to merge councils across the state - a policy they describe as divisive, unpopular and undemocratic.

The policy will see the total number of councils in greater Sydney reduced from 41 to 24 and result in the amalgamation of Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby councils.

Hopes were raised when a newly sworn in Ms Berejiklian in January expressed a willingness to revisit the policy following a backlash by the National Party.

But on February 14, the premier instead announced, while planned mergers in regional areas would be canned, it was business as usual in central Sydney with plans for five more mergers to take place, pending court outcomes.

The news left campaigners like North Shore local Prof Bobyn furious.

"It's just such a blatant divide and conquer mentality.

[The regional areas] have been let off the hook due to political pressure," he told North Shore Living. "Ms Berejiklian has being poorly advised and we will be launching fresh action in the courts - we are fighting this."

Professor Bobyn has written to the premier outlining the Mosman Against Forced Amalgamation group's arguments against forcibly merging democratically elected councils, in which he claims the government has never made a credible case for amalgamation.

He further claims the cornerstone KPMG financial report, which was to lay out the case, was largely kept hidden.

"The forced amalgamation agenda is a deep insult that will long be remembered and will have a strong effect on the by-election and the forthcoming state election in 2019," Professor Bobyn adds.

The judgement has also stirred passions at Mosman and North Sydney councils, with each council slamming the decision.

Both North Shore councils had fresh legal challenges scheduled for hearing in the NSW Land and Environment Court last month.

Mosman, which spent $130,000 on legal costs between July 1 and January 30, also has an appeal scheduled for hearing in the NSW Court of Appeal this month.

Mosman mayor Peter Abelson says the government "apparently has absolutely no empathy for the deep feelings that many people have over the control of their lives, services and the environment that is lost in larger, impersonal and more bureaucratic government units". 

Deputy mayor Roy Bendall echoes these sentiments, saying locals felt "utter devastation and disbelief" over the decision.

"I feel like we have been thrown to the dogs," he tells North Shore Living. "This will have dire and long-term consequences for the Liberal heartland - you can only kick supporters and communities so far until they bite back."

Mr Bendall accuses the government and larger councils of wanting to control the urban planning agenda by merging the smaller councils like Mosman.

"Amalgamation policies are all about development applications and increasing density. It's a joke," he claims.

Meanwhile, Willoughby Council has so far refused to go to court with the matter.

In a recent statement Mayor Gail Giles-Gidney said Willoughby was "an agile, change-ready organisation well-positioned both financially and operationally to proceed with a merger".

"Some residents have expressed a preference to stand alone while others are happy to be amalgamated," she says.

"We don't believe it's appropriate to spend ratepayers' money to fight this in the courts."

Meanwhile, Save Our Councils president and Mosman councillor Carolyn Corrigan says the fight is "far from over".

"In a referendum four years ago, 81 per cent of residents voted against amalgamation and we believe support against it now is even stronger," Ms Corrigan says.

"The upcoming by-election will provide a real opportunity to put the Berejiklian government on notice - residents are holding firm onto their belief in local democracy and representation.

"The latest debacle in February has left the Liberal Party with egg on its face, in what amounts to a messy, blatantly political decision - that's having one decision for the bush and another for the city."

In a media statement, Ms Berejiklian defended her decision, saying all merged councils "continue to enjoy the benefits of savings and improvements to services".

"We will also push ahead with those councils in Sydney that are before the courts," she confirmed.








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