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BY NINA KEMPSTER

The ongoing battle between the NSW Government and local eastern beaches councils including Woollahra, Randwick and Waverley has seen a change of pace as newly appointed NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian gives hope to the anti-merger supporters.

In December 2015 the NSW Government announced their intention to merge Waverley, Randwick and Woollahra Councils in order to create a new eastern beaches council consisting of 274,000 residents.

However, when in May 2016 the NSW Government announced the first round of council mergers, the eastern beaches merger was left out due to Woollahra Council’s ongoing court case, which has since been taken to the High Court after it lost its challenge to the merger in the NSW Supreme Court.

At the time, Randwick Mayor Noel D’Souza reiterated in a press release that Randwick Council would prefer to stand alone.

“We know this is what most residents want, but we’ve also been dealing with a Government that wants to reform local government. Council would prefer to stand alone, however as this was not possible through the Fit for the Future process, Randwick Council advocated for the creation of a smaller eastern beaches council that retained local identity and protecting staff and our sense of community.”

However, under the new Berejiklian Government, long standing Member for Vaucluse Gabrielle Upton has been appointed as Local Government Minister. Upton has previously voiced her support for local government when she exhorted the community to sign a petition opposing the merger at a 2015 anti-merger rally in Woollahra.

“I believe there is no perfect size for a council, and what works here, in the area that Woollahra council represents, may not work for those who are three streets to our south. I do believe that small can be effective, and let me be clear, my position is that Woollahra council should not be merged with other councils if it has the community’s support, and the number’s stack up.” She told the cheering crowd.

A recent media release from the Woollahra Municipal Council, Mayor of Woollahra, Toni Zeltzer applauds the unconfirmed decision to call off forced mergers, calling it a “win for democracy”.

“I am yet to receive a formal notification from the Government. If what I am hearing in media reports is correct, then this is great news for our community. This is a win for democracy. Clearly the State Government has listened and they have got the message loud and clear that local communities want to have a say on the future of their local areas and they care deeply about having their voice heard. I commend both the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian and the Minister for Local Government, Gabrielle Upton for listening to the community and for acting quickly.”

To date, Woollahra Council has spent $850,000 on legal costs relating to the proposed amalgamation and $271,763 on community information campaign about the merger.

A Waverley Council spokesperson told City Hub that for Waverley Council, it was ‘business as usual’.

“Council is awaiting an announcement relating to the future of the local government mergers. We look forward to more certainty for Waverley Council and its staff in the near future. Until then, it’s business as usual and we will continue to focus on meeting the needs of the Waverley community.”

The Save Our Councils Coalition organised a rally on the 5th of February to condemn forced amalgamations and ask Councillors to “stand with their communities”.

Peter Primrose, the Shadow Minister for Local Government, told the crowd that forced mergers need to be addressed immediately.

“We need to get this fixed quickly, it needs to happen now. This is the government’s mess, they have to fix it. No forced mergers. We need to have communities deciding what happens in their local communities. We will assist the premier in sorting out her mess. Don’t for a minute think that the local communities are going to go away. This is going to hurt the government, fix it now.”