The Mornington Peninsula would risk being swamped by the five municipalities with which it is proposed to merge under a plan being pushed by the Committee for Melbourne (CFM) and apparently favoured by the state government.

Six merged councilsThe merger proposal would create a super-council of more than a million people, stretching east-west from Yarra Ranges Shire’s southern boundary to the City of Bayside and from the Baw Baw-Cardinia Shire border in the east to Port Phillip Bay, a total area of 2763 square kilometres.

Such an entity would be the death knell for “local” government in Melbourne’s south-east. It would result in more than one-third of Melbourne in the hands of an impersonal bureaucracy almost certainly administered from well outside the peninsula.

It would cover fast-growing suburbs in Melbourne’s south-east, including Berwick and Cranbourne, which would demand state government priority for infrastructure such as power, roads and footpaths, sewerage, schools, hospitals and other community facilities.

Mornington Peninsula, which is 70% rural “green wedge” land, would certainly come under intense pressure from state planners and property developers, especially on the central Moorooduc Plain farmland, where a new suburb to house 40,000 people was proposed then abandoned in the 1960s.

Super shire - mornpenWith the loss of its independent and individual “presence” – remember when Melbourne comprised 53 municipalities? – the peninsula, with a population of under 160,000 and slow growth predicted, could be pushed aside, pushed under, in the rush for funds in a huge new money-hungry council.

The current state government has in recent months made clear it regards Mornington Peninsula Shire as just another part of greater Melbourne for planning purposes.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne, brushing aside the shire’s painstakingly tailored planning scheme, has imposed the metropolitan three-storey (11 metre) height limit on tens of thousands of peninsula house lots previously capped at two storeys (8 metres).

Six councils tableWhile the six councils proposed for merger – Mornington Peninsula, Frankston, Kingston, Greater Dandenong, Casey and Cardinia – are now represented by a total of 60 councillors, the super-council plan is driven, according to its proponents, by a need to cut costs by efficiencies which, it is claimed, the merger would achieve.

Super shire - Frankston2Would that mean fewer councillors? What would that mean for local democracy? These aspects of a merger are not mentioned.

martine lettsCommittee for Melbourne chief executive Martine Letts (left) told Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper recently: “We believe a new system of local government that creates economy of scale through collaboration is essential for service delivery and sustainability.

How exactly to do this requires further study. But it could be via a single council, or six separate council clusters in greater metropolitan Melbourne.” With our cluster, it seems, likely to be first.

The CFM case appears directed at two goals – to be more “efficient” and to make Melbourne internationally competitive. Melbourne’s recent acknowledgement as the world’s most liveable city does not appear to feature in its vision.

Super shire - KingstonLiveability does, however, feature strongly in the goals of at least two of the six councils selected for merger, the peninsula and largely rural Cardinia. Both could be expected vigorously to resist any merger move that would open them up to the “efficiency” of new development.

A third result of the proposed merger would inevitably be a further diminution in resident power against the bureaucrats who would run the southern “cluster” and in the other five council clusters being contemplated for Melbourne.

Many recall the Kennett advocacy for council amalgamations in the 1990s – advocacy that was eerily similar to the Letts enthusiasm for “economies of scale” and “rates savings” that would solve the problem of bloated bureaucracies and huge council executive pay packets.

It hasn’t worked: the bureaucratic bloating and rates rises continue, partly because federal and state governments continue to cost-shift on to local government. Victoria finally was forced to cap rate rises. 

Super shire - DandenongRemember compulsory competitive tendering, the Kennet plan to privatise and thus make more efficient council functions? A study done in the 1990s for a very conservative accountants’ publication predicted that councils would soon lose their practical experience of road making, rubbish collection and the like, and that they would soon deal with huge multinational corporations that are expert in these areas, who would, as the expression puts it, “see councils coming”. Hello, French-owned Veolia and Suez Environment, and their many transnational colleagues! 

High salaries are anathema in councils, it appears. But it was Mr Kennett who caused the problem. He was the architect of the “board of directors” model of local government, having councillors work with newly created high-flying chief executive officers on super-salaries, who supplanted the humble town clerks on humble stipends.

Salaries in the hundreds of thousands are to be celebrated in the private sector, apparently. But not in the public sphere. Almost 1000 council officers earn at least $150,000 a year, and more than 100 executives get at least $250,000 annually, according to the Herald Sun article.

Super council - caseyA study of the table above shows clearly the varying “democracy” level among the six councils. Note the huge disparity in the “Residents per councillor” column between Cardinia (10,613 ratepayers per councillor) and its neighbour, Casey (27,461 ratepayers/councillor, nearly three times more).

Ancient duffers such as Bandicoot recall the close personal relationships that existed pre-amalgamation, when one could phone the local councillor to complain/advise on the barking dog or the overhanging branch. The councillor would then approach the relevant council officer and report back to the affected citizen.

Not now. Mornington Peninsula Shire specifically bans councillors from directly approaching down-the-line staff. And residents are required to lodge barking-dog issues with Customer Service (best done online; six categories available, one of them “Graffiti On Shire Property”).

For efficiency, of course.

The number of councillors fell dramatically – 1600 were sacked – when councils were amalgamated in the 1990s. Brace yourself for what will occur if/when the six south-east councils become one.

Super shire - Cardinia2The six councils now have 60 councillors. Will the new, efficient super-council retain 60? Unlikely. So how many councillors will represent the Mornington Peninsula? Will the current 11 be retained, considering the vast emolument ($29,000) they are paid – plus expenses?

Bandicoot predicts no more than four, probably fewer councillors, will represent each ex-council, for a total of 24, or fewer. But wouldn’t equity demand Casey, with 302,000 residents, and currently 27,500 residents per councillor, gets more councillors and Cardinia (10,613 residents/councillor) gets fewer?

The total resident number in the six shires is a whisker over 1 million. Twenty-four councillors would each deal with about 41,600 residents, against the average councillor /resident ratio of about 16,500.

Gwynedd_armsA couple of British examples provide a useful comparison. The council district of Gwynedd, in far west Wales, comprises 2547 wild, wet and windy square kilometres on the coast facing Ireland, inhabited by 121,874 wild Welshmen and women as counted at the 2011 British Census. They elect 75 councillors, for a councillor/ resident ratio of 1625.  Gwynedd’s coat of arms

RBKC coat of armsAt the other end is the ultra-posh Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, scene of the recent tragic Grenfell Tower inferno. Area: 12.13 square kilometres. Residents: 3173. Number of councillors: 50, for a councillor/resident ratio of one councillor for every 63.5 residents, or four councillors per square kilometre. You’d be tripping over them in Harrod’s.  The Royal Borough’s coat of arms 

Bandicoot concedes neither Gwynedd nor the RBKC provide an ideal example to follow, but highlight the UK emphasis on “community” and therefore the damage a crazy push for “efficiency” and “cost savings” might do.

Mornington Peninsula councillor numbers were slashed by about two-thirds in the Kennett amalgamations, from the number who served in the old shires of Mornington, Hastings and Flinders. That was savage enough. If the current mooted merger goes ahead – Bandicoot strongly opposes it – the region must retain all its 60 current councillors, or possibly gain more – and properly fund them. 

Victoria counties (cadastral divisions)■ Victoria is divided into 37 counties, which were gazetted in stages between 1849 and 1871 as Victoria was progressively opened up to British settlement. Unlike counties in the US and the UK, Victoria’s counties have no administrative or political function.

They are used for land administration purposes, identifying the location of any piece of land by reference to a lot number of a particular plan of subdivision or other certified plan or survey.

Legal documents (such as a title or transfer) can describe a particular parcel of land by reference to the county, parish, township (if there is one), section, crown allotment number, and certified plan number.

Perhaps our counties could be judiciously amalgamated and converted to a series of political units, which could replace our state government!

 The Committee for Melbourne, essentially a business lobby group, describes itself as “an apolitical, not-for-profit, member-based organisation that brings together over 120 organisations from Greater Melbourne’s business, academic and community sectors who have a passion for shaping Melbourne as a leading global city in the world’s fastest-growing region, the Asia-Pacific”.

Its website states CFM “is not constrained by single-interest groups or the short-term political cycle, which enables it to work on a far-reaching agenda to shape our city’s future prosperity and liveability”.

CFM logoIt adds: “The collective strength of the Committee’s membership provides the knowledge and catalytic thought required to develop practical ideas and initiatives that deliver positive and lasting outcomes.

“Our work across business, academic and community sectors gives us unrivalled insight and influence into the issues affecting the long-term development of Greater Melbourne.”

It boasts of being “a major driving force behind the development and progression of our city working on many projects over the years, such as the Docklands redevelopment, privatisation of Melbourne Airport, progressing medical technology through the BioMelbourne Network, and the Western Bypass and CityLink projects. Most recently, the Committee outlined best practice principles for an independent infrastructure prioritisation entity, which were adopted by Infrastructure Victoria.”

Just thought you’d like to know. 

 Gwynedd has a splendid castle/rail museum –