NSW councils must reform to manage growth better: Urban Taskforce

VERY few councils in New South Wales seem to have agreed that big is better as they submit their Fit for the Future proposals to the State Government but reform is still essential, according to development industry group, the Urban Taskforce.

Urban Taskforce CEO, Chris Johnson, said only a handful of the 152 NSW councils have proposed mergers, with many saying they can still become fit for the future.

Sydney CBD
Above: Sydney CBD / by Andrea Schaffer.

"There is clearly strong local pressure to remain accessible but councils must also manage future growth and future populations effectively," Mr Johnson said.

"The Urban Taskforce believes that while there are many activities performed by councils that are best managed at a local level there are broader, regional issues related to planning for growth and infrastructure delivery that require coordination, funding and implementation on a regional scale.

"If significant amalgamation of councils does not occur then a number of councils should look towards sharing the delivery of those services that benefit from a regional approach.

"The councils of Ryde, Lane Cove and Hunters Hill have proposed this model which could be a Plan B approach for local government reform if rational amalgamation of councils cannot be achieved."

"The Urban Taskforce believes that shared service centres, or joint organisations, can provide those services that gain from size like regional planning, while local services can continue to be provided at the local level.

"To be effective these joint organisations must be mandated by the government and given appropriate legislative powers to support their role. The current Regional Organisations of Councils should be disbanded to enable these joint organisations to operate effectively.

"The recent release of performance data on councils over 2013/14 from the Office of Local Government certainly does not prove that big is better. The largest of Sydney's 41 councils, Blacktown with 325,000 people comes in at 35 of the 41 Sydney councils on the Operating Performance Ratio, which measures council's expenditure to revenue ratio.

"The second biggest, Sutherland with 223,000 people, comes in at 27th, the third biggest Fairfield with 201,000 people, is 30th, fourth is Bankstown with 197,000 at number 33 and the fifth biggest Liverpool with 195,000 is 34th.

"So the five biggest councils in Metropolitan Sydney are certainly not proving the case that big is better when assessed against the government's Operating Performance Ratio."

Mr Johnson said a number of measures other than size in the government's performance data seem to be more significant in influencing the Operating Performance Ratio, such as councils with higher population density and councils that obtain significant revenue from business rates.

"To be fit for the future Sydney councils will need to encourage more density and more businesses to locate in their urban areas," he said.

"The important issue in reforming local government in Australia is to ensure that the state government has the prime role and responsibility for managing our cities.

"State governments run the public transport, the roads, the schools and the hospitals and provide the major infrastructure and clearly need to work with groups of councils on issues of metropolitan and regional significance.

"As Sydney moves from being a sub-urban city to an urban model with areas of greater density we will need to continue to develop a constructive relationship between local and state government that allows both levels of government to take responsibility for planning the future for issues appropriate to their level of governance.

"This could be 12 amalgamated large councils or it could be 12 joint organisations of councils," Mr Johnson concluded.

More information about the NSW Government's Fit for the Future reforms is available from <http://www.fitforthefuture.nsw.gov.au/>.

Photo: View of Sydney CBD from Balls Head Reserve / Andrea Schaffer / Licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0.

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