Lane Cove, North Sydney councils reconsider fight against mergers as five stand firm

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announcing on Tuesday that the government would proceed with the five merger proposal across Sydney. Photo: Louise KennerleyNSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian may have resolved the uncertainty in regional councils, but in Sydney the limbo continues as mayors expressed disappointment and frustration over the government’s decision to continue the city mergers.
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Promising to “end the uncertainty”, Ms Berejiklian announced on Tuesday the government would abandon its proposed mergers of regional councils, which had been delayed by legal action.

But she recommitted to proceeding with the five pending Sydney mergers, which councils have also fought through the courts.

“Profound disappointment sums it up,” said Hunters Hill mayor Richard Quinn, who accused the government of prioritising a development agenda over local representation.

“Ms Berejiklian hasn’t ended uncertainty at all. What certainty has come is that the whole motive is housing and development issues. It’s about ensuring there is more and more development in Sydney.”

Justifying her decision on Tuesday, Ms Berejiklian said the benefits of the city mergers far outweighed those in the bush, and were necessary to address the city’s housing affordability crisis and improve development approval times.

“It is really important for us if we care about housing affordability, if we care about planning and infrastructure, to go and proceed with these reforms.”

While some mayors have reaffirmed their council’s resolve to continue their legal challenges, others are reassessing the futility of the fight, given the government’s renewed determination, amid mounting costs to ratepayers.

Mayors from Hunters Hill, Strathfield, Ku-ring-gai, Mosman and Woollahra all confirmed their councils would not abandon their legal challenges.

However, Lane Cove and North Sydney councils will vote to decide whether to maintain their appeals at council meetings on Monday.

In North Sydney, where residents will soon go to the polls for the North Shore byelection, mayor Jilly Gibson said she was now “very despondent” about the council’s legal challenge, but acknowledged some of her fellow councillors did not share her view.

“The courts can’t save North Sydney council. Only the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, can. There was one opportunity for our council to be saved and that was when Mike Baird stepped down and Gladys Berejiklian stood up.

“We’ll really have to seek some advice and make a very carefully considered decision about whether or not we proceed.”

However, deputy mayor Melissa Clare rejected Cr Gibson’s position as a “minority view” and said she was confident a motion to continue the legal fight would easily win the support of the other councillors at Monday’s meeting.

Lane Cove mayor Deborah Hutchens was also circumspect about the council’s ongoing attempt to fight the merger with Ryde and Hunters Hill councils.

“I’ve got very mixed feelings today, following what happened yesterday,” she said. “Is it worth pushing through. Is it worth fighting?”

However, in Mosman Council, opposition to the proposed merger with North Sydney and Willoughby councils remains unequivocal, Mayor Peter Abelson said.

“In Mosman Council, every single council resolution on whether to take legal action has been unanimous. There is complete solidarity we should be taking these steps.”

The legal challenges will also add to the uncertainty over when council elections can be held.

On Tuesday, Ms Berejiklian said she wanted all pending councils to hold elections by March 2018.

But the appeals for Mosman, North Sydney and Lane Cove are set down for April, with a judgment expected to delay any decision by weeks or even months, leaving a small window to achieve Ms Berejiklian’s timeline.

“The whole thing gets very messy. To claim uncertainty is finished is a big claim,” Cr Abelson said.

Aggrieved mayors also took aim at the Premier’s concession that a “one-size-fits-all approach for NSW” was the wrong approach, and one which had failed to appreciate the differences between the city and country.

Ku-ring-gai mayor Jennifer Anderson said a similar blanket rule had been applied to the city councils.

“Clearly, a one-size-fits-all model across Sydney is equally problematic in our case,” Cr Anderson said, noting that the council had no intention of abandoning its Supreme Court Appeal which begins on Thursday.

She said the proposed merger with Hornsby would force together “quite different communities of interest”, with Hornsby Shire “largely rural and river land” whereas Ku-ring-gai is an urban area with strong links to the city.