08/02/2012 - 10:42

Wise counsel needed on amalgamation plan

08/02/2012 - 10:42


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The state government has been stymied in its efforts to amalgamate councils.

The state government has been stymied in its efforts to amalgamate councils.

AMONG the least impressive policy directions of the current state government is its lame attempt to get councils to amalgamate.

In its bid to create economies of scale across the third tier of government in our over-administered land, Colin Barnett’s administration has proved powerless to force councils to merge with their neighbours.

There are good reasons put forward advocating bigger councils but forcing any democratic institution to do away with itself in the interest of the common good is a tough mountain to climb.

There are myriad other reasons many suggest to reduce the number of small councils: councils can oppose perfectly reasonable developments; they can get bogged down in petty politics; they can be nurseries, safe havens or power bases for activist politicians; there is a track record of susceptibility to corruption; the growing role of federal government means the state now is seeking to make itself relevant in the local council space; and the high cost of running a democratic institution that does little more than collect the rubbish. 

Not all of these apply to every council, but most readers could find an example.

From a state perspective, one of the biggest problems with councils is their disdain for development in established areas. People in small geographic areas sometimes fail to see the big picture that state governments can. 

Some see it as a ‘nimby’ approach to self-interest. But maybe it’s simply self-protection from a wide spectrum of people who believe sometimes people’s private property interests ought to be overridden for the greater good. 

This threat to private property interests can come from both sides of the political divide – from property developers to the greenest of conservationists, at times even acting in concert, notably in the case of infill in established suburbs. 

The state government is already doing a lot to overcome this issue.

It has created Development Assessment Panels and, more recently, the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority to oversee big projects and ensure important planning decisions are not held to ransom because they cross a few council boundaries.

Such a body may be instrumental in forcing development in inner-city suburbs, especially those that resist efforts to increase density in the name of sustainability, such as those sought by the former Labor state government in its Network City plan.

Back then Dalkeith was highlighted as an early area to create some density, much to the chagrin of residents who actually protested quite vigorously against any proposal to put more people in their gentrified suburb.

This is the sort of thing that makes residents believe in local councils; governments that are close enough to their voters to understand their issues.

I’ve had personal experience of this. From time to time our family has raised issues with our local councillor and generally felt that it has been a worthwhile exercise.

Across the great and challenging deserts of our land, in Queensland, an election campaign is under way.

Interestingly, the conservative Liberal National Party, a real merger of the loose coalition we have in Western Australia, has gone into the election with a policy to unroll amalgamations voters are unhappy with.

“The current tired, 20-year-old Labor government has failed to support local councils and recognise the key role they play in supporting Queensland communities,” is how it is explained on the LNP website.

“Labor’s mismanagement and incompetence have caused a major breakdown in the relationship between local and state governments.

“The council amalgamations forced on Queensland communities have cost councils and ratepayers dearly.

“The LNP is committed to paying back Labor’s $85 billion debt and getting Queensland back on track. Part of this plan will be providing better infrastructure and better planning locally, and for this Queensland needs strong local governments.

“We recognise councils are the elected bodies closest to their communities, and are best placed to provide practical and appropriate local solutions to local issues.

“To be most effective, well governed councils need to have a sound financial structure and authority to solve problems, provide appropriate services and manage the growth of communities locally.

“The LNP has made it clear that its preference is for Queensland’s councils to remain as currently constituted to avoid any further disruption and cost for local communities. We don’t believe there is a widespread need or community mood for changes to local government boundaries.

“However, we do recognise that there are a small number of Queensland communities that will want to re-examine their position. The LNP is committed to giving local people a choice about de-amalgamation.”

I find it fascinating that two broadly similar political groups could take such opposing views to the issue of local government scale.

It suggests to me that council recalcitrance and mismanagement is really an issue for incumbent governments rather than being about one side of politics or the other.

From a state government perspective councils just create another barrier to cohesive decision-making, especially the big-picture projects state governments like – and which often mean a local group of residents must make a sacrifice for a matter of state significance.

An interesting example of this I have encountered in my own area is the constant griping about parking problems and traffic in the Nedlands and Subiaco council areas due to construction taking place at the Queen Elizabeth II medical centre. 

The state government and those running the project on its behalf seem to enjoy blundering into new issues for which they rely on local goodwill – a well that is not that deep anymore.

It is these kinds of things that make residents turn to their local councillors, as the elected representative who is much closer and more accessible than any state minister is likely to be.

There is no doubt that councils have a lot of faults but, like those who bash banks ought to realise, you only miss them when they have gone.

While I could easily make the case for the council amalgamations – especially for councils that appear to be too small to truly protect their residents’ interests – I can’t really understand what driver there is for the Barnett government in this policy?

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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