The NSW government just gave up on council amalgamations in Sydney

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian. Photo: Daniel Munoz/Getty Images

New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian has walked away from a key policy of her predecessor, Mike Baird, putting an end to forced council amalgamations in Sydney.

The decision ends an 18-month legal tussle with councils that chose to fight the mergers in the Supreme Court and comes five months after the government gave up on the regional mergers Baird said would deliver “huge benefits” for taxpayers.

The premier blamed those opposing the government’s merger plans for her decision saying “certain councils were happy to continue lengthy and costly legal proceedings”.

She said the uncertainty created by the ongoing legal battles led to the government’s decision to abandon one of its key policies.

“We want to see councils focusing on delivering the best possible services and local infrastructure to their residents,” she said.

In May 2016, former premier Baird sacked 378 councillors on 44 councils overnight, crunching them into 19 new entities under administration for 18 months.

But the plan caused serious political pain for the Coalition, putting its re-election chances in 2019 in jeopardy, with Baird retiring suddenly and leaving Berejiklian to deal with his messy legacy.

In February, the government buckled to terror in the ranks of its junior partner, the Nationals, announcing the scrapping of six regional mergers, but saying it would press on with five outstanding mergers in Sydney.

“The five remaining metropolitan mergers are expected to generate $530 million in benefits over 20 years. Communities deserve to see these benefits,” Berejiklian said at the time.

The decision came after the Orange by-election last November shell-shocked the Coalition when the Nationals lost the seat after 69 years to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. Some of the 21.8% swing away from the Coalition’s junior member was attributed to the amalgamations issue. It cost Troy Grant his job as NSW Nationals leader.

When deputy premier John Barilaro, who took over from Grant, announced the government was scrapping the regional mergers, he said it was designed to “put an end to the confusion and uncertainty for those councils locked in drawn-out legal battles”. Local government minister Gabrielle Upton echoed his sentiments in today’s announcement, saying those council amalgamations currently before the courts “will not proceed.”

Today’s decision means several northern Sydney councils, including Ryde, Hunters Hill, Lane Cove, Ku-ring-gai, Hornsby, Mosman, North Sydney, and Willoughby, along with Strathfield, Canada Bay,and Burwood in the inner west, and Woollahra, Randwick and Waverly in the east will no longer merge.

Woollahra’s appeal against the merger was set to go to the High Court.

In a statement released today by Gabrielle Upton, minister for local government, she says: “Due to the protracted nature of current legal challenges and the uncertainty this is causing taxpayers, existing amalgamations, such as three Labor-dominated local government areas that are now the Inner West Council, remain in place.”

“The Government remains committed to reducing duplication, mismanagement and waste by councils so communities benefit from every dollar spent,” Upton said.

Local government elections, delayed for 12 months in council areas undergoing amalgamation, are due to be held on September 9 this year.

The government’s latest announcement means that from Baird’s original plan to crunch 152 councils to 112 in 35 mergers, just 20 have proceeded.

Premier Berejiklian said: “We are proud of what we have already achieved for local communities in the 20 merged councils, where significant savings and improvements to services and infrastructure have been delivered.”

The government said the merged councils had reported savings of more than $50 million in the 10 months to March this year, three times more than original estimates.