After four years of development, Premier Mike Baird’s Coalition government this morning outlined plans to cut the number of New South Wales councils from 152 to 112. The biggest hit will be taken in greater Sydney, where councils will be slashed from 43 to 25.

Council elections due to be held next September have been postponed until March 2017 to avoid any anti-Liberal backlash at the community-level ballot box.

The Local Government Boundaries Commission will be put in charge of redrawing the new maxi-council areas in greater Sydney, a process that is expected to take months.

The future of lord mayor Clover Moore’s Sydney City Council was unclear. The cabinet is determined to give it a “global city” status and appoint administrators if Moore’s independent-led majority refuse to co-operate.

In the city’s wealthiest real estate zone, the eastern suburbs, harbourside Woollahra will be merged with Randwick and Waverley.

It is an amalgamation that will rile the true-blue Tories in Woollahra — where Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull grew up and now live — and the “red flaggers” from the south Sydney areas of Waverley (think Bondi) and Randwick (think the famous racecourse and Bronte and Maroubra beaches).

In the inner west, dominated by Labor and the Greens, Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville will be merged; so will Burwood, Canada Bay and Strathfield.

Two new northern beaches councils will be created by splitting Warringah Council and merging the pieces with Pittwater to the north and Manly to the south. Taking some of the local pain will be Manly MP, Premier Mike Baird, and Pittwater MP, Planning Minister Rob Stokes.

Today’s decision marks the end of a seemingly interminable process to rationalise council numbers in greater Sydney. As the convict settlement expanded from Sydney Cove in the 19th century, new councils were established willy-nilly to give settlers an opportunity to take part in constructing their communities.

The result was a spoke-wheel of family and business-run town halls, without experience or knowledge of town planning, urban design, architecture or economics.

Royal commissions and public inquiries came and went; their reports on council mergers fill filing cabinets in the NSW Parliamentary Library while interminable debates are recorded in dusty volumes of Hansard.

The NSW Labor opposition is going through the motions of criticising the Coalition’s “Fit for the Future” plan, but their opposition is only for the TV cameras.

For years Labor has nursed plans to reduce the number of town halls and it is quietly pleased that it is happening on the Coalition’s watch and not theirs.

Baird has waited until the eve of the Christmas holiday season to slash the number of councils and bureaucratically merge dozens of them.

Using a classic spin doctor’s trick, he is burying the town hall bloodbath amid Yuletide when firms take a holiday break and families go shopping or off on holidays.

As a result, ratepayers will wake up to the fact in the new year that their local council has been swallowed up and they now live in a maxi-local government area.

Local Government NSW president Keith Rhoades criticised the pre-Christmas timing, saying: “They’ve deliberately timed it so residents and ratepayers won’t be around to see the government’s plans revealed.

“It looks like the NSW government isn’t about genuine reform at all — they’re more concerned with avoiding public scrutiny by slipping it under the community radar.”

He accused the government of breaking its earlier promise of “no forced amalgamations” made three years ago when Barry O’Farrell was premier.

“Today that commitment is long gone,” said Rhoades.

“The Local Government Minister [Paul Toole] now says he doesn’t need to keep his written promise that there’d be no forced amalgamations because it’s a different government with a different Premier.”

He predicted that the community-based Save Our Councils Coalition (SOCC) would continue to campaign against forger mergers right up until next state election in March 2019.

On the other hand, Baird and Toole, National MP for Bathurst and a former mayor, will be hoping their “Fit for the Future” local government shake-up will be bedded down and long forgotten.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey