Southern Downs Regional Council mayor Tracy Dobie has taken aim at Member for Southern Downs James Lister.
Southern Downs Regional Council mayor Tracy Dobie has taken aim at Member for Southern Downs James Lister. Samantha Bennett

De-amalgamation: is it viable?

RECENTLY, de-amalgamations have been on the cards in a number of Queensland Local Government Areas, most notably Southern Downs where a group are campaigning for a "new Granite Belt Council".

Mayor of Southern Downs Council, Tracie Dobie said she was open to the proposals but that they had to be financially viable backed up by a strong business case.

"De-amalgamation doesn't just affect those who are pushing for it. It affects the whole community and as such these plans must be examined thoroughly."

"We asked the QLD treasury corporation to do a review of the proposal and it will come to council next month," Ms Dobie said.

Debates around de-amalgamation were often highly emotional and Ms Dobie noted community identity was often front and centre of people's minds when she asked them why they backed de-amalgamation.

"One of the most common things I hear is that people want the name of Stanthorpe as the local government name," she said.

"That's why I say residents have to understand the implications of what they are asking and whichever way they go they need to understand what it will cost."

"It's not an easy thing to do but the decisions must be made on fact because emotion is all well and good but emotion doesn't pay the bills."

One of the few councils to de-amalgamate was Noosa in 2014, after a wave of support led to 81 per cent of residents voting in favour of breaking away from Sunshine Coast.

At the time there was a significant concern in the community over increasing development and Noosa councillor Ingrid Jackson, while not on council at the time, explained some of the reasons for it.

"There was a particular focus on protecting the environment and keeping the built environment from being overdeveloped," Mr Jackson said.

"And there was a sense that the money in rates wasn't coming back to Noosa."

Despite the overwhelming support for the de-merger there have been some drawbacks that Ms Jackson said related to the inherent nature of the de-amalgamation process.

"There had to be a lot of negative momentum to enable a de-amalgamation and it can stay there," she said.

"So the outcome has been less co-operation from the councils, that has been less than ideal. Previously the libraries were networked and that was cancelled quite unnecessarily I think."

While the ability to "better consolidate revenue and design the built environment" was lost by having a smaller council, they were better placed understand the community.

"The benefit is that it is much more needs focused on the area you are in," she said.

"Therefore you can be closer to the needs of residents and all the ratepayers money is directed in the local area.

Professor Brian Dollery of the University of New England who has researched the issue extensively, said that there were possibilities "between the two extremes" of de-amalgamation and amalgamation.

"You could devolve political responsibility back to the local areas but the keep the service structure the same as one big administrative structure."

"Some sort of agreement between the different bodies about the allocation of the resources would then occur, based on population of the community areas or rateable assessments or value of rates paid."

"Once you establish guiding principles, then each council could decide how their percentage gets spent."

Prof. Dollery also highlighted the ability of councils to maximise their buying power by entering into shared service arrangements but noted that the Local Government Act made it hard for councils to change.

"The Local Government Act in NSW is very prescriptive compared with other Australian jurisdictions.

"Here is NSW the state government can kick Local Government around as much as it pleases."

"In Western Australia for example if the government tries to forcibly amalgamate you, you can hold a referendum and if people vote no then that's the end of it. That's democracy."

Prof Dollery saidthat while there are definate economies of scale in larger local government, they are often offset by many dis-economies of scale.

"Anywhere that requires human interaction there are massive dis-economies of scale"

"Instead of having one health inspector, in a big council you have five health inpectors, three managers and two secretaries and so on."

"And we have shown it here in Australia and in Belgium, USA, Spain and Japan that bigger is not not cheaper when it comes to local government."

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