Local Government – Should There Be Amalgamation

Local Government amalgamation is back on the agenda after a hiatus of some 15 years, this time sponsored by the Southern Tasmanian Councils Authority (STCA) appointing an Advisory Panel, and with active lobbying from the Property Council.  Back in 1993, after years of often acrimonious debate, the number of Councils was reduced from 46 to 29.  A more recent move to rekindle the debate was aborted in 1998.

The Property Council has been arguing for some time that rate rises are too steep, that systems diverge widely, and that the various planning schemes are inconsistent and in many cases out-of-date.  They provide as evidence of their case a recent report from Deloitte Access Economics, which considered specifically the effect of council structural reform in Tasmania and suggested possible efficiency gains of up to 35% were achievable.

The Advisory Panel has recently released 4 options for consideration.  In brief, they are: Option 1 - no change, but maybe some shared services.  Option 2 – One large regional Council.  Option 3 – A greater urban Hobart surrounded by smaller rural councils.  Option 4 – as per option 3, but with a separate Eastern Shore Council.  Although these have been put forward for discussion purposes only, are these the only options?  I think not.

If, as seems likely, and as a majority of those polled have indicated support, amalgamation of some kind is the answer, then first let us consider what specifically is the question.  How to improve service delivery?  How to reduce rates?  How to provide a consistent approach to planning issues?  How to provide improved amenity?  As you can see, there is more than one question.  And this can lead to what are the issues that should be priorities when considering the role of Councils.  For the purposes of this piece, I will simply accept that the argument is about doing existing activities better, ie more efficiently, rather than doing different things.

As stated in the STCA paper entitled “Participation and Place”, Tasmanians have a strong sense of place.  Tasmania is very regional and rural in its nature, with some distance separating its major centres.  This sense of place has been enshrined in the very local nature of local government, which has developed an identity forged by history, a history that has involved significant isolation.  To therefore suggest a coalescion of local government groups inevitably confronts this barrier of losing identity.

At the same time, modern communications and transport links make the historic barriers redundant, and the greater sophistication in service and amenity delivery demands economic efficiencies which - it is suggested - amalgamation brings.

In considering a more streamlined local government structure, we need to consider some salient points:

Point Communities regard themselves within a geographic framework.

Point Local government is by its nature local, and is based around the sense of community.  It is not regional.

Point Some services, once very local, are now best delivered at a regional level.

Point Bigger does not necessarily mean better - it can mean worse.  Small can be beautiful, but it does require a critical mass.

Point Amalgamations can be a political minefield – whoever makes the decision will not receive unanimous support.

The suggestion from the Panel that political power should be a significant consideration is passing strange.  Power is a tool in the toolbox which can be used to advantage, but badly used can do enormous damage.  I would have thought that effective service delivery was of paramount importance and political authority a secondary consideration.

There are four natural geographical environments around Hobart where rural and regional coalescions could occur:

Derwent and Central Highlands

Brighton and Southern Midlands

Sorell, Tasman and possibly Glamorgan/Spring Bay

Kingborough and Huon

The question then is whether to amalgamate the three cities of Hobart, Glenorchy and Clarence, or the alternative proposition of a western entity - Hobart and Glenorchy – and an eastern entity – Clarence.  This then is the essential matter raised by the Panel in its Options 3 and 4.

Whereas I am attracted to the idea of an efficient urban Council, the attraction is based on the ability to provide a more consistent approach to planning and an improved delivery of services.  However, this may not automatically be the case, and in fact, could lead to a more cumbersome and difficult bureaucracy for the urban area, and to leaving behind the rural and regional areas.

There is an alternative, which I believe was first proposed by Marti Zucco.

Each of the coalesced regional entities would have a natural hub – New Norfolk, Brighton, Sorell and Kingston.  Each of these could serve not just as a central focus for its particular region, but as a satellite for a larger entity, based around the 3 separate city centres of Hobart, Glenorchy and Clarence.

The eventual structure would become three major entities, geographically based, each with its satellite environment, and each with approximately equal numbers and authority.

The advantages of such an approach would be a reduction in the number of Councils from 12 to 3, but retaining a geographic integrity (northern, southern, eastern).  Each would have a similar critical mass of residents (around 80,000) that could ensure a sound financial base.  Each would have a mix of urban and rural.  And each would be under a competitive tension to perform its functions effectively by acting as a benchmark for others.  A competitive environment to perform and to attract investment is not a bad thing.  And any mistake or policy divergence by one would not then affect the entire southern community

Once established there would then be an opportunity for “THE BIG THREE” to make further efficiencies and savings via pooling planning facilities and back office functions.  After all, improved efficiency is what this discussion is all about.

Not the only option I am sure, but one that does deliver to the various needs so far expressed.