Backflip on council mergers looms: reports

Shellharbour mayor Marianne Saliba said she was hopeful and proud of her city’s continued battle to stave off an amalgamation on Wednesday night, after reports emergedthatNSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was poised to announce a backflip on thecontroversial forced merger policy.
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Cr Saliba, who has led Shellharbour’s long-running fight against the planned merger with Wollongongsince it was announced in December 2015, said she welcomed reports that councils which were yet to be merged would not be forced to do so.

“I’ve had a but of a gut feeling since the change of leadership that there might be a change in policy,” Cr Saliba said.

“But I’m not going to be celebrating until there’s a public announcement and we certainly won’t be withdrawing our legal challenge until there’s an agreement from the Premier.”

Numerous reportson Wednesday said the government was considering cancelling the mergers still being disputed in court andallowing ratepayers of already merged councils to vote on whether to de-amalgamate, possibly through the use of plebiscites.

The Premier would not confirm the government’s thinking.

“As I have said, we are looking at the council amalgamation policy,” she said to Fairfax Media through an emailed statement.

Like his Shellharbour counterpart, Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery – who also opposed the merger but been much less vocal in his criticism of the government’s policy –was relieved by news it may be dumped.

He said the prospect of mergingand subsequent legal delays hadplunged his council into a “messy, disruptive, difficult time” that had stopped the councillors from planning for the city’s future.

Also on Wednesday night, the state association for councils, Local Government NSW, revealed it spent much the dayin meetings with Deputy Premier John Barilaro and new Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton.

“It would be inappropriate to reveal the content of those discussions, but I can certainly say they were both constructive and productive,” LGNSW President Keith Rhodes said.

“I have said all along that I was confident the Berejiklian/Bailaro Government and the new Local Government Minister would listen to the people, and [media]reports appear to confirm that confidence.”

The first cabinet meeting since Ms Berejiklian replaced Mike Baird as Premier last Monday is to be held on Thursday.

Plebiscite plan on the cards to head off NSW council merger backlashThe Berejiklian government is considering using plebiscites to allow residents to decide the future of the state’s councils, in a potential major about-turn from one of the Coalition’s signature policies.

The use of plebiscites to settle the contentious issue of council mergers would raise logistical and political issues across the state, after multiple councils were already forcibly amalgamated.

But after GladysBerejikliandeclared that she would listen to the community on the topic, it is understood that councils that have not yet merged may be spared amalgamation.

It is unclear what would happen to councils that have been merged, but if the government did not allow residents in those areas to vote on the future of their councils, there would be a certain strong backlash from MPs and residents. Plebiscites are likely.

The Premier would not confirm the government’s thinking. “As I have said, we are looking at the council amalgamation policy,” she said through an emailed statement.

The first cabinet meeting since Ms Berejiklian replaced Mike Baird as Premier last Monday is to be held on Thursday. It is understood the government will want to have its position resolved before Parliament resumes on Tuesday, February 14.

Prior to her selection as Premier by the Liberal party room, Fairfax Media revealed that Ms Berejiklian would re-consider the contentious council merger policy.

Although the government has already created 20 new councils across the state, another 11 councils are still to be created. These have largely been delayed because their constituent councils have challenged the amalgamations in court.

The first challenge to make it to the High Court – Woollahra’s bid to prevent its merger with Waverley and Randwick – is likely to be scheduled for a hearing date to determine leave to appealsome time this month.

Ms Berejiklian has appointed politicians to key posts who have in the past strongly opposed amalgamations. The Member for Vaucluse and new Local Government Minister, Gabrielle Upton, told a public meeting in 2015: “I believe that local governments are local.

“My position is that Woollahra Council should not be merged with other councils.”

The Member for Lane Cove and new Planning Minister, Anthony Roberts, told a meeting in 2013: “Bigger is not better. The case has been prosecuted that bigger is better and I don’t think it will be able to be prosecuted.”

Both MPs are in areas where councils have so far resisted amalgamation. Sydney councils that were to be merged under Mike Baird’s government but have not yet been amalgamated are: Burwood, Canada Bay and Strathfield; Hornsby and Ku-Ring-Gai; Hunter’s Hill, Lane Cove and Ryde; Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby; and Randwick, Waverley and Woollahra.

The merger issue would also be contentious in the upcoming by-election in North Shore, which was precipitated by former health minister Jillian Skinner’s retirement from politics.

The Nationals Leader, John Barilaro, has already committed his party to preventing any more amalgamations in regional areas. This policy would prevent the merger ofArmidale Dumaresq and Guyra with Uralla and Walcha,Bathurst’s merger with Oberon,Blayney’s with Cabonne and Orange, and Dungog’s merger with Maitland.

Keith Rhoades, the chief executive of industry association Local Government NSW, said he had spent all day in meetings with Mr Barilaro and Ms Upton.

“It would be inappropriate to reveal the content of those discussions, but I can certainly say they were both constructive and productive,” Mr Rhoades said.

– Sean Nicholls and Jacob Saulwick

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