EDITORIAL: Combining Huntercouncils

LATE last year, when the NSW department of local government tabled its major review of the state’s councils, it firmly made the case for merging Newcastle and Lake Macquarie.
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Newcastle faced ‘‘significant challenges including forecast operating deficits, large capital works requirements and demanding issues associated with urban renewal,’’ the review stated.

‘‘Its southern suburbs merge seamlessly into the Lake Macquarie area to form a single metropolis that needs to be planned and managed as an integrated whole,’’ was the finding, leading to the conclusion that ‘‘Newcastle and Lake Macquarie should be amalgamated to form a new council with a projected population of around 390,000 in 2031’’.

That might seem easy and logical to an observer from outside the Hunter, but residents of the region would instantly acknowledge some difficulties. A certain amount of cross-boundary jealousy seems to exist – in some minds at least – and advocates of the interests of both councils have already pointed out ways an amalgamation might disadvantage one side or the other.

Despite these concerns the reality is that amalgamation’s time will almost certainly come.

In the meantime, it seems reasonable to suggest that the state government has a lot of work to do to make the option palatable.

That means a lot more than the mere promise of a one-off cash payment, such as the $22.5million currently being offered as an incentive.

In fact, it should mean an entirely new deal for what represents, after all, the second city of NSW. That new deal should address some of the entrenched inequities in the existing funding system that forces Newcastle’s local government to provide major cultural and recreational facilities that are in Sydney covered by the state budget.

As this newspaper has argued before, the state should pay for the running of Newcastle’s art gallery and museum, as a minimum.

It should also put an end to iniquitous taxes on residents of regions, such as the waste levy that sucks millions of dollars out of the Hunter’s budget every year with little sign of any benefit in return.

There are many other ways in which the state government’s skewed spending priorities favour Sydney over regions, often obliging local government ratepayers to cover the shortfall.

The state government says its priority in promoting amalgamations between local government areas is the benefit of ratepayers.

Ratepayers would probably find that assurance easier to accept if the government addressed some of the ways in which it directly short-changes citizens of Newcastle and Lake Macquarie.