University of New England study by Professor Brian Dollery slams forced council mergers

Professor Brian Dollery is Director of the Centre for Local Government at the University of New England. Photo: Fairfax Media
Professor Brian Dollery is Director of the Centre for Local Government at the University of New England. Photo: Fairfax Media

Queanbeyan-Palerang could be in for a difficult future if results from a recent University of New England study of merged councils hold true in the region.

The principal author Professor Brian Dollery, a scholar specialising in local government with more than 40 years experience, says forced mergers lack empirical evidence of benefits and are often detrimental.

His most recent study focused on the Clarence Valley Council, on the NSW mid-north coast, and found that council to be significantly worse off financially since its 2004 amalgamation.

While Professor Dollery had not studied Queanbeyan-Palerang specifically, he said most council mergers dating back decades followed a similar pattern and most had common attributes.

"You take two small country councils that are broke, you put them together and get one bigger broke council," Professor Dollery said.

"A large amount of money is spent, a lot of people get inconvenienced, terrible bitterness and fighting goes on, lots of small communities have councils ripped out of them, housing markets can collapse and people can lose their jobs.

"All for nothing."

Professor Dollery was part of a group that published a paper last year that primarily found over the period 2004-2014 merged councils performed no better than their unmerged counterparts. His most recent study goes further to suggest a merged council may be in fact significantly worse off.

A spokesman for the Minister for Local Government refuted these claims and suggested last year's merger process was fundamentally different from previous occasions.

"The study examined councils merged in 2004, these councils were not provided with support from the then state government," the spokesman said.

"The 20 new councils created in 2016 have been provided with comprehensive support from the NSW government including $375 million towards the upfront costs of merging and to kick-start delivery of community infrastructure projects.

"The funding is an integral part of the government's support for new councils to enable them to invest savings directly into community benefits at the earliest opportunity."

While prior to mergers the government will make public interest claims, Professor Dollery suggests mergers are often to appease lobbyists and interest groups that would benefit from fewer council regulations.

He said these most recent amalgamations had introduced a new and potentially insidious element to government policy where deliberate attempts were made to be as ambiguous as possible.

Where previously residents were promised lower rates and other measurable qualifiers the NSW government had introduced mergers with a goal to reach undefined measures such as "strategic capacity".

Professor Dollery also suggested state governments had become reliant on mergers to address local government issues.

"Amalgamation is only one way of trying to get scale, there are plenty of other ways that are much more promising."

He cited sharing services between smaller council to share cost and maximise production and implementing co-production between different sectors as ways local government largesse could be contained.

Council services and therefore expenditure are more often than not dictated by population density, something Professor Dollery said no government could properly control.

"This is not the Soviet Union, you can't just order people to go and live somewhere," he said.

Whether the merger of Queanbeyan and Palerang will prove beneficial or detrimental cannot be known for years, however the academic literature does not paint a positive future.