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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

The 1925 boundaries of Brisbane, showing the previous local authorities absorbed by Brisbane City Council. (source: Fryer Library)

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 (see exhibit). It replaced 19 municipalities and its boundary extended well beyond the then urbanised area (it didn’t breach that boundary 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.

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  1. 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.
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  • 1
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Given nearly 80% (?) of Victorians live in Melbourne, it wouldn’t seem so silly to shift at least some council responsibilities that would benefit from economies of scale and don’t benefit particularly from localisation to the state government. But actually the size of local councils in Melbourne seems pretty reasonable now – and given the expected growth in population in the next 20 years, I wouldn’t want to see any more amalgamation just yet.
    One big advantage of having various local councils is the opportunity to trial laws and policies on a smaller scale before applying them more widely. E.g. if the City of Melbourne were to decide that all local roads were to have their speed limits reduced to 40 k/h, and it proved to be a successful measure, other councils would think about adopting it, with the ultimate possibility of it becoming state and even federal law. But it’s hard to imagine this ever happening in Brisbane, given there’s no logical small area to trial it in.

  • 2
    Tom the first and best
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    There is an argument that there should be 2 tiers of local government in large cities. The big policies like transport, water, watse management, broad planning policy, etc. would be in the city wide government`s hands. Local boroughs would handle local street streets, parks and planning decisions other than major projects.

    The lack of expansion of the BCC area is also contrary to the original concept of the BCC. The main reason is that when the original boundaries started to be breached in the 1960s, Queensland was run by a Country Party lead government (despite the Liberals having more of the Coalition`s vote than the Country Party until the 1970s) and this Country Party control meant that the state government had greater interest in the BCC having less influence.

    Conversely it was the non-Brisbane dominance of Qld that allowed there to be sufficiently low opposition from state government to setting up the BCC.

  • 3
    Robert Brown
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    @Dylan Nicholson

    …One big advantage of having various local councils is the opportunity to trial laws and policies on a smaller scale before applying them more widely…

    Couldn’t this be done within a council? In your example, I don’t think any laws need to be changed (and if there were, they’d likely be state laws). Just put up some new sign-posts in a given area and job’s done.

    Councils already divide their area into zones and have different programs in each. They’re not obliged to implement programs or by-laws council-wide.

  • 4
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    @Robert Brown – not sure how enforcement would work in such cases. Admittedly given it’s not entirely clear when driving around which local municipality you’re currently in there’s limits to how well such a trial might work, but I’m sure there are better examples.

  • 5
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Dylan Nicholson #1, #4:

    It’s be interesting to see some reliable data on whether or not having large numbers of municipalities in places like Sydney and Melbourne really has led to a worthwhile level of innovation. I suspect the curve isn’t very steep and flattens well before getting to 30+ municipalities. This is the kind of policy-relevant issue that researchers at our planning schools should be on top of (but I doubt it).

  • 6
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Given Western Australian is in the midst of a significant process of reducing the number of metro councils and it is causing a lot of angst I am surprised that you do bring this into your discussion. Maybe time for more informed research and discussion?

  • 7
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Well if someone could show that Melbourne and Sydney councils hadn’t been considerably more prepared to try out new legislation than Brisbane over the last ~90 years then I guess it would effectively disprove any benefits of smaller government bodies.

  • 8
    Waffler
    Posted March 2, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    I am not sure the local laws issue is a good reason – we could end up with US systems of wildly varying laws depending on which Council you are in – all enforced by politically aligned officers.

    I don’t have a problem with municipalities of around 100k-200k residents – this makes for relatively efficient service provision, but retains connections to local issues. However, any level of Government is parochial, and sometimes it makes sense to get together on bigger issues to work out a “best” overall solution. State Governments do it (e.g. with the Commonwealth through COAG) and Councils already do it formally and informally (e.g. a number of transport action groups, economic development groups, etc).

    In Victoria there are also many examples of rural Councils getting together and improving commercial outcomes through joint purchasing arrangements. Waste disposal is another area where cooperation in planning and purchasing (presumably) leads to better and cheaper outcomes.

    More formally helping Councils develop appropriate joint interest groups might be a better answer both politically and functionally than further amalgamations.

  • 9
    Bruce Highfield
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    The design of Australia’s cities and infrastructure must now transcend regional boundaries both council and state. Local councils should manage the provision of local services. A federal master plan is required to manage the population requirements for the future. The economic future of this country depends on reliable water to both cities and agriculture. Invest some time and see how western USA is irrigated. Australia is not the food bowl of Asia however with 50 years of excellent planning and investment in water, rail and ports it has potential.

  • 10
    Steve777
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    If having ‘micro councils’ administering areas a few kilometres across was such a great idea, outer suburban local government areas that were originally rural or semi rural shires (e.g. Penrith, Liverpool, Hornsby and Sutherland in Sydney) would have been broken up.

    Sydney does’t need 38 councils. Eight or ten would be more than enough. They are too small to manage many of the challenges of a modern city including cross-suburban traffic and urban consolidation. They seem to be very much hostage to Nimby activists.

  • 11
    grubbidok
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    Was going to vote but then declined after it wanted FB info. Using Brisbane as a beacon of urban planning is fraught – a lot of the desolate suburban wastelands in that city are the result of centralisation, and central council ‘choosing’ where to put things instead of organically developing communities. Grass ain’t always greener.

  • 12
    chpowell
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Ahh…..the old furphy.

    Here’s a better idea – amalgamate councils, appoint professionals to manage them, and get rid of the States. NB there aren’t any in NZ nor the UK

  • 13
    Hamis Hill
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    Alan, you could have mentioned Fabian Socialists and social scientists, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who trawled the Empire looking for somewhere to take up their ideas for large and powerful councils subsequently capable of implementing their advanced socialist ideas.
    Was the Greater London Council the only other example of their ideas in action?
    In the event local democracy and the sense of community has been completely extinguished in Brisbane, allowing those greater “powers” envisioned by the Webbs to be adopted by private developers for private profit.
    All very efficient.
    In more recent times the people of Pittwater managed to de-amalgamate from the serially sacked Wharingah Shire Council in Sydney, dominated by the PM’s faction of the NSW Liberal party.
    Enough said?

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