30/07/2013 - 06:58

Council call a vexed issue

30/07/2013 - 06:58


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I have to admit to being a complete fence sitter when it comes to the issue of local government amalgamation.

I have to admit to being a complete fence sitter when it comes to the issue of local government amalgamation.

I can see the merits, but hope the problems solved by merging councils doesn’t come at a cost in terms of representation.

Firstly, on the merits of amalgamation, councils consume a lot of resources in maintaining offices, administrative staff, providing services and meeting the needs of what often is a very noisy minority of ratepayers.

Smaller councils often struggle to get with the program in terms of their place in the wider metropolitan area. There are good reasons to carefully balance local, metropolitan and statewide issues, but there are only so many Switzerlands the world can handle; most places learn to compromise.

My final big negative is that local government can provide a haven for both extremes of personal interest –those individuals who oppose progress, and the short-sighted profiteers who claim to be enlightened citizens working on ratepayers’ behalf.

I encountered one particularly bad example of poor local council decision making when my youngest child was attending a pre-school that needed to be relocated within the City of Claremont. The volunteers at this parent-run school had identified an appropriate under-utilised building that would suit 25 kids, and received council executive support.

However the mainly retired people who lived on the street where this school was going to be located lobbied councillors to deny the proposal.

One councillor even had the gall to tell us that Claremont had enough schools already, overlooking the fact that the school was already in the city.

We were not residents of Claremont; we lived in a neighbouring jurisdiction. But like most people in the largely splintered western suburbs we use many services outside our small local government area.

If there had been a larger local government, such as the one proposed by the Barnett government, I could have had more direct representation with regard to the council decision, or been able to express my disdain for this council’s weak decision at the ballot box – whatever that may be worth. It certainly sounds more reasonable than moving house, which would have been a rather extreme alternative.

Whether or not I might, as a result of the government’s plans, be happy to see Claremont disappear as a local government body does not mean that I consider all small councils incapable of keeping up with the times or occasionally making the right decisions.

Councils can do more than collect the rubbish, keep the local parks tidy and the stray dogs off the streets – all important tasks someone has to do.

Smaller councils do often accurately reflect the composition of the local community. That can be important, especially when such governments can become captive of activist minorities that don’t represent more passive mainstream views.

There is some value, occasionally, in looking for homogeneity or common thinking. Africa would, no doubt, be a different place if national borders reflected traditional tribal or ethic boundaries, rather than marking historic colonial land grabs.

There is also value in being close to the customer, as many businesses would know.

In my local area, when we have had an irritating minor issue, our local councillor has been available to listen to our problems and act on our behalf. I actually value that more than anything else our council offers because I realise an issue that can make life miserable for a handful of residents could be well and truly lost as the size of constituency increases.

Such proximity to the market comes at a price, however. Ask any bank about the cost of running a branch network compared to telebanking.

Councils are not banks, but there are similarities when it comes to evaluating the cost of doing business, if not the value.

Amalgamating councils might make many areas of their business less messy, but we need to make sure that individual ratepayers are still adequately represented in the bigger jurisdictions that will result.




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