The community engagement process for Fit for the Future clearly showed the strong link between local councils and sense of community identity, and that many communities are deeply passionate about the future of local government in their area.
Whilst the communities we spoke to undoubtedly expect their council to operate efficiently, it was evident that there are long-held views and concerns about how communities would be represented under proposed council mergers, and how local identity and priorities would be protected and enhanced.
With its focus on financial sustainability, the Fit for the Future process left these questions largely unanswered, making effective community engagement on the relative merits of merger business cases difficult. Many communities feel a strong sense of ownership over their council and see its role extending well beyond core local government services. Access to their councillors and the role the council takes in the local community was important. There is strong parochialism in many communities which goes back generations, is deeply linked to community identity, and threatened by the concept of creating larger local government organisations which may operate outside of their current centre.
Without understanding how representation, identity and local priorities would be managed under the proposals, the seven Fit for the Future benchmarks were essentially meaningless within the broader conversation about the future of local government. Until this is clearer, communities are right to feel concerned, particularly smaller communities proposed to merge with larger neighbours.
Financially sustainable councils are only one part of the picture for the future of local government in New South Wales. Communities want local government organisations that intimately understand, retain and build local identity; are able to closely and effectively represent their residents; and pursue the issues and priorities of most value to them.
Any organisation can deliver services, but the question for the community was whether the proposed organisations would represent their community as effectively as the current system. The Independent Local Government Review Panel made a raft of recommendations which would have helped answer these questions and provide greater clarity and certainty to communities. However, without this part of the picture, communities found it difficult to effectively engage in discussions about the future of their local council and the proposed changes. This is perhaps most evident in the small number of merger business cases submitted to IPART for assessment.
For more information on community engagement, contact Greg Smith