Are there too many Councils in Australian cities?
Many argue the large number of urban Councils favours local interests over metropolitan objectives, especially in planning. There’s a case for rationalising the number and powers of Councils
Rationalising the number of Councils in Australia is a perennial issue; regular as clockwork a prominent public figure pops up proposing amalgamations, a reduction in the powers of municipalities, or even a reduction in the number of tiers of government.
It’s hardly surprising. Sydney has a whopping 38 Councils across the metropolitan area, Melbourne has 31, and Adelaide has 19. Although it has less than half the population of either Sydney or Melbourne, Perth has an astonishing 30 Councils. (1)
Brisbane City Council is the poster child of many who favour amalgamations. It has 1.1 million residents and covers an area of 1,367 sq km – roughly an 18-20 km radius around the city centre. It’s one of just 10 Councils administering the 3.3 million people who live in the 22,000 sq km defined as South-East Qld.
In contrast, the City of Sydney covers just 25 sq km and has a population of 169,505. The area administered by the City of Melbourne is 36 sq km, with 93,625 residents.
As I noted here, the City of Brisbane has much wider responsibilities than other municipalities in Australia. It collects rubbish too, but it also builds and manages key transport, water and sewerage infrastructure. Brisbane Transport operates over a thousand buses as well as one of the world’s leading Bus Rapid Transit systems.
When the Greater Brisbane Council was established in 1925 it was designed to govern the entire metropolitan area as it then existed (see exhibit). It replaced 19 municipalities and its boundary extended well beyond the then urbanised area (the boundary wasn’t breached by population expansion until the 1960s).
There are a number of potential benefits from amalgamating Councils. One is economies of scale in management and in providing services that benefit little from highly-localised administration e.g. rubbish collection, recycling, pet registration.
With fewer Councils there’d also be fewer border problems where Councils adjoin. There’d be better coordination of policies and operations across many more suburbs.
A larger Council would spread the benefits of a key revenue source like CBD businesses across a larger population rather than spending disproportionately on gold-plated facilities for a relatively small number of residents.
The big pay-off though would be the extra weight a larger Council would be likely to give to the regional and metropolitan-scale implications of planning and heritage decisions.
The ability of residents to improve the value of their properties by suppressing multi-unit developments in their neighbourhood would likely be weakened if Councils were larger. At present, resident opposition to development has a deleterious effect on housing affordability in established suburbs.
But that also highlights one of the disadvantages of amalgamation; it would weaken local representation and increase the distance between residents and those making decisions about their neighbourhood.
The City of Brisbane has 26 Councillors (around one per 43,000 residents) whereas the City of Melbourne, for example, has one per 9,300 residents and the City of Sydney has one per 18,000 residents. My local Council, City of Banyule, has seven Councillors (one per 16,900 residents).
State politicians are also likely to be nervous about creating big and inevitably more politically powerful Councils. They’d worry large Councils would fight them over power and resources. They’d be reluctant to give them the sorts of responsibilities that Brisbane City Council enjoys.
Rather than pursue the politically difficult path of amalgamation, an alternative strategy would be to transfer responsibilities with regional and metropolitan implications to a State-sponsored planning and/or infrastructure body.
Melbourne’s new Metropolitan Planning Authority is a step in that direction although its remit appears to be limited to detailed structure planning and infrastructure coordination for outer suburban Growth Areas and specific locations such as key urban renewal sites.
Other models include Sydney’s former Cumberland County Council and the former Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW). The MMBW is especially interesting because it was essentially a board of technocrats responsible at various times for roads; water, sewerage and drainage; land use planning; and parkland and open space.
Finding the right balance with these sorts of bodies is fraught. If they’re too far removed from the political process (they might have, say, their own revenue sources) there’s a danger they might not be in tune with the changing needs and aspirations of residents.
But if they’re designed to be more responsive, they might be subject to the vagaries of party politics despite having seemingly independent boards.
The realistic solution is probably some blend of these approaches. However it’s done, the key objective must be to devise a system where administration of policies with local and metropolitan implications can be separated.
The failure of State Governments and Councils to provide an adequate supply of housing in the established suburbs of many of our cities suggests we haven’t yet got the balance between local and metropolitan objectives right.
Should the number of Councils be reduced? Vote at Town Hall.
- There were many more Councils in Victoria before the major reforms implemented in the 1990s under the Kennett Government. The number of Councils in the State was reduced from 210 to the current figure of 79 and the number in metropolitan Melbourne was almost halved.