The report into local government in NSW, released yesterday, has flagged that it supports amalgamations of local councils, even though the state government has ruled out forcing the issue.
The Independent Local Government Review Panel’s final report identifies Byron, Richmond Valley, Clarence Valley and Kyogle shire councils as future amalgamation targets, with critics saying a Kyogle merger could happen as early as next year.
The panel’s 65 recommendations are available for councils to respond to until just March 7.
Local Government NSW (LGNSW) has slammed the state government for imposing such a limiting consultation deadline, saying it gives them little or no time to respond given many councils don’t meet until mid-February.
LGNSW president Cr Keith Rhoades said ‘the minister’s had the Review Panel’s report for nearly three months; we’ve had it for three minutes’.
‘There is no document more important for local government in NSW than this one. The premier and minister Page must provide a consultation timeframe that is suitable for councils and the communities they represent – not an arbitrary date picked by cabinet.
‘The report is extremely detailed and complex and there are significant changes in the Review Panel’s recommendations since the last discussion paper. We at Local Government NSW need time to consider the changes and the impact on the sector.
‘Councils also need time to study it and consult with their communities on the numerous changes that have been suggested,’ he said.
Cr Rhoades said he was particularly concerned about the report’s calls for wholesale amalgamations of councils across the state.
‘Obviously, local government’s main concern is council amalgamations. While the report does not support forcibly amalgamating councils, it does provide a very detailed “merger” blueprint for a future state government without the current “no forced amalgamations” policy,’ he said
‘The other key issue we believe our member councils will want to discuss are the new structures proposed for local government, particularly in rural and regional areas.
‘These new structures, coupled with suggested amalgamations, provide complicated solutions to the problems faced in rural NSW, and will need to be examined in great detail.’
The report also calls for a review of rate pegging, although local government minister Don Page has said the state government would stick with the system for the time being.
‘It is true to say that in other states where they don’t have rate pegging there hasn’t been a huge blowout in rates but the government’s policy at the moment is to stick with rate pegging,’ he told ABC radio this morning.
‘But we take seriously the recommendations of the report,’ he added.
The report flags early on its three major concerns.
‘Sooner or later amalgamations will have to be part of the package; the number of councils in NSW has halved during the past century and that trend will surely continue,’ it reads.
‘Rate pegging should be reviewed in the context of a wider effort to address infrastructure backlogs and ensure financial sustainability,’ it continues.
‘Cost-shifting has been overstated relative to other factors, but local government does have legitimate concerns about rating exemptions and concessions, and the way some fees and charges are fixed below cost.’
The panel concludes that ‘all concerned need to face the reality that there are no “pots of gold” in Canberra or Macquarie Street; councils must make better use of their own revenue base, and limited grant funding must be distributed according to needs, not simply numbers of people’.