31/07/2013 - 07:15

Council mergers just a first step

31/07/2013 - 07:15

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Advocates for local council mergers are in danger of over-reaching when they talk up the anticipated benefits.

Council mergers just a first step

Advocates for local council mergers are in danger of over-reaching when they talk up the anticipated benefits.

THERE was backslapping and congratulations all round this week after the state government announced its blueprint for local council reform in Perth.

Judging by some of the responses from business groups, visitors to Perth could be forgiven for thinking local council mergers will single-handedly usher in a new era of enlightened government across the metropolitan area.

One business group extolled the announcement as a “momentous” achievement.

Others said that services would be delivered more efficiently, there would be better collaborative planning, and the western suburbs would be able to embrace housing infill and development.

We were also told that, “the CBD can now grow without the constraint of conflicting neighbouring council regulations”.

That’s an interesting claim. The current City of Perth boundaries already encompass Northbridge and West Perth, so where was the conflict?

To cap off the new nirvana, we were also told that council mergers should result in a drop in rates throughout Perth.

The most level headed business response came from land development group UDIA, which welcomed the release of new council boundaries but sensibly observed that mergers are just the start of the reform process.

“Whilst the detail of where the lines on the map have been placed are bound to dominate discussions, achieving economies of scale and a more robust planning and approvals system is the goal for the industry,” UDIA (WA) chief executive Debra Goostrey commented.

Ms Goostrey observed that the current fragmented planning system had led to dramatic variations between local authorities, including engineering conditions that to a large extent should be consistent.

This week’s announcement followed the Robson review, which called for a reduction in the number of local councils in Perth.

It floated three options – one council covering the entire metro area, or five, or 12.

The government has opted for 14, with each having a population of about 100,000.

But there was a lot more to the Robson review than mergers.

In particular, it highlighted the need for elected councillors to focus less on operational matters and more on strategic leadership.

That aspect of local council reform has barely been mentioned in a debate dominated by mergers.

The other aspect that has fallen out of the limelight is the lack of reform in rural Western Australia, where the case for mergers is far more compelling than in metropolitan Perth.

WA has 138 local authorities; 108 of these are in rural WA, and 36 have fewer than 1,000 residents.

These tiny and remote municipalities make the famously small Town of Peppermint Grove seem like a model of modern efficiency.

The Nationals are vigorously opposed to forced mergers and have effectively vetoed progress in rural WA, but they have agreed to support forced mergers if they occur in the city.

Having announced the new boundaries for metropolitan Perth, which are due to take effect in July 2015, the state government has many challenges in front of it.

One is the cost of mergers; WA Local Government Association president Troy Pickard claims it will be up to $50 million. Is that a fair estimate? And who is going to bear the cost?

Another more fundamental challenge will be lifting the standard of governance across the sector, and the quality and efficiency of service.

Larger municipalities offer this potential.

They should simplify the processes that enable local councils to build expertise, bring more consistency in planning and approvals across Perth, and make it easier for elected councillors to escape the clutches of small, noisy minorities that often sway the outcome of local council elections.

But there is no guarantee.

Just ask property developers currently operating in Perth’s larger municipalities, who bemoan the poor service standards.

Business News looks forward to constructive debate that will advance these important goals.

 


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