The state government is standing by its planned merger of Wollongong and Shellharbour city councils, despite recent backflips giving anti-amalgamation campaigners hope of a change in fortune.
Shellharbour City Council made its opposition to the forced merger known during this week’s Local Government NSW conference at the WIN Entertainment Centre.
Premier Mike Baird and Local Government Minister Paul Toole fronted the gathering on separate occasions, both hearing a passionate plea from Shellharbour mayor Marianne Saliba for the merger to be withdrawn.
Mr Toole applauded council representatives, like Cr Saliba, for advocating on behalf of their communities but said the state government was “committed to local government reform”.
“If we have stronger councils here in this state it means that communities are going to continually get the services and the infrastructure that they both need and deserve,” he said after his address.
“It means there will be less reliance on going out there and actually seeing rate increases that do impact upon mums, dads, families and pensioners here across this state.”
Asked specifically if the government stood by the Wollongong-Shellharbour merger, the minister said: “We’ll certainly wait for the outcome of the court decision before we take any further action”.
Shellharbour council’s legal challenge is due to be mentioned in the NSW Court of Appeal on November 23.
The appeal follows last month’s NSW Land and Environment Court decision to dismiss an initial challenge.
Questioned whether Shellharbour’s prolonged legal fight was of concern, Mr Toole said: “At the end of the day, this does come at a cost to ratepayers and residents.”
“What we want to do, though, is to finish this process … then we can see the new council getting on with the job of providing the services and infrastructure back into their local communities,” he said.
Premier Mike Baird had a “strong message” for councils challenging the government’s plan.
“They are getting in the way of actually delivering some of the significant benefits … to their communities,” Mr Baird said.
On the back of his greyhound backflip, the Premier was asked if he would do the same on mergers.
“We specifically responded to an issue [greyhounds] last week. We believe that this [council amalgamation] is in the best interests of the people across the state,” he said.
“It’s not easy, change is not easy but we are on the ratepayers’ side.”