What the State Government said about merging Strathfield, Burwood and Canada Bay

After two years of fighting in the vanguard of the anti-amalgamation campaign, Strathfield residents could hardly have been surprised by the news that the NSW Government wants to merge their council with Burwood and Canada Bay.

Indeed, to some it was a relief. Auburn had been mentioned as a merger partner – a suggestion that had many deeply concerned.

And thankfully, the mega-council merging Strathfield, Burwood, Canada Bay, Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville, resulting in a population of more than 400,000, suggested by the Independent Review of Local Government, never made the cut.

The proposed new council including Strathfield will have a population of 160,000.

Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville get to form their own council.

Strathfield Mayor Sang Ok spoke for many when he said after hearing the plan: “Reflecting on the state government’s proposal, which was announced today, I will be putting a mayoral minute forward. Strathfield’s worst case scenario of merging with Auburn and Bankstown is over.”

Despite painstaking arguments about financial sustainability, good management, great assets and residents who wanted a standalone municipality maintained, Premier Mike Baird and Local Government Minister Paul Toole were, in the end, unmoved.

They made it clear at their pre-Christmas press conference that the municipality would be forced into a merger if it couldn’t agree.

“After considering the clear need for change, the Independent Local Government Review Panel research and recommendations, the assessment of councils by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART), council merger preferences, community views and the unique needs and characteristics of each area, I am putting forward the proposal to merge the local government areas of Burwood, Canada Bay and Strathfield,” said the minister in a forward to a report on the Inner West area.

And there was a sweetener, the long awaited Strathfield Town Centre Masterplan was dangled as a carrot. After years of lip service by successive state governments, suddenly this crucial revitalisation was on the table.

“With the merger savings, NSW Government funding of $24 million and a stronger voice, the new council will be better able to provide the services and infrastructure that matter to the community, projects like: local infrastructure and services for growing communities along the Parramatta Road Corridor and the Strathfield Town Centre Masterplan, a project to revitalise the centre of Strathfield as a commercial hub.”

If nothing else, Strathfield’s vocal campaign against mergers had at least achieved this.

The government document details benefits it believes the merger will give communities, including better services and infrastructure, improvement in operating results, lower rates, reduced infrastructure backlog and better councillors and council staff.

The plan, which was met with widespread anger and protests, is to cut the number of councils in Sydney from 43 to 25.

The government will ask IPART to consider a proposal to alter the way rates are calculated from being based on land values to a calculation based on property values. This is likely to mean hikes in inner-city and prestigious suburbs, though the report promises a rate freeze for four years while things are sorted out.

The mergers will be forced via the Boundaries Commission, an independent panel that legally requires public hearings on any boundary changes.

It’s all so complex, not a lot is likely to be known for certain until next year and council elections will be delayed until March 2017.

Each merger proposal has a delegate who will field submissions by the community and assess and report back to the state government.

Residents have until 5pm on Sunday February 28 to make submissions online at councilboundaryreview.nsw.gov.au or by mail to GPO Box 5341, Sydney NSW 2001.

So what’s on offer for the residents of Strathfield?

 

Financial benefits

According analysis by KPMG last year, the proposed merger has the potential to generate net financial savings of $60 million to the new council over 20 years. Council performance will be improved, says the report, with a projected 140 per cent increase in annual operating results within 10 years. The merger is also expected to generate, on average, about $5 million in savings every year from 2020 onwards by removing duplicated functions and reducing senior management roles, increased purchasing power and a reduction in the overall number of elected officials.

 

Services and infrastructure

The report states that with a merged council, revenue is expected to exceed $198 million per year by 2025, with an asset base of about $900 million, to be directed towards the infrastructure backlog. These projects would include major developments such as the Strathfield Town Centre Masterplan, as well improved parks, gardens and local roads.

 

Regulatory benefits

There are currently 152 separate regulatory and compliance regimes applied across local council boundaries. It can be expected that the proposed merger will result in simplified council regulations.

 

Rates

Two of the three councils are currently seeking or have recently received approval for rate increases to fund council services and infrastructure. Burwood Council has approved Special Rate Variation (SRV) of 17.4 per cent over a four year period from 2014-15 and Strathfield intends to request an SRV of 7.5 per cent over a one-year period in 2017-18

The savings generated by a merger may enable the new council to reduce reliance on rate increases to fund infrastructure. In addition, the new council will have a larger rate base on which to set ratings policies and improve the sustainability of council revenue.

 

Local representation

The ratio of residents to elected councillors is similar for Burwood and Strathfield councils, while Canada Bay residents have a higher ratio. This reflects the variation in populations and number of councillors. Canada Bay Council serves many more residents and has a slightly larger number of councillors.

While the proposed merger will increase the ratio of residents to elected councillors, the ratio is likely to be similar to those currently experience in other Sydney councils including the more populous Blacktown City Council.

The new council will be in a position to use its larger scale and capacity to more effectively represent its communities. As the new council will represent a more significant share of Sydney’s population, and have a substantial economic base, it will be able to advocate more effectively on behalf of its residents.

Councillors will continue to represent local interests and will have the opportunity to take a more regional approach to economic development and strategic planning.

 

Shared community values

The communities of Burwood, Canada Bay and Strathfield share similar community values including cultural diversity and social inclusion. They also have a number of priorities in common, highlighted in their strategic community plans.

These include improving ageing infrastructure, supporting economic growth through developing employment opportunities and addressing challenges such as population density, transport congestion and affordability.

The three councils share health services and facilities from Concord Repatriation General Hospital and Strathfield train station overlaps Strathfield and Burwood councils.

The three council areas are part of the Inner West Home and Community Care region, so many community care services for the frail aged and respite services for carers are delivered across the council boundaries.


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