Council boundaries and amalgamations: Should they change as we grow | The Courier

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Council boundaries have been pretty much set in Victoria since former Premier Jeff Kennett introduced widespread amalgamations 25 years ago – but is it time for another look? In late December, Golden Plains Shire councillor Owen Sharkey moved a motion for council officers to investigate what it would take to change the shire’s boundaries, and possibly amalgamate with other neighbouring shires. He said at the meeting this was in response to queries from residents – he said frankly that he wasn’t sure what the answer was. WATCH THE DISCUSSION FROM 2:18: The questions came in the context of the shire’s rating review period, and some residents could see the differences between Golden Plains and nearby Greater Geelong – in costs and services. However, the motion was soundly defeated two to five, with councillor Clayton Whitfield and deputy mayor Helena Kirby speaking against it. Cr Sharkey said the intention of the motion was never for council to take a position on change, but just to investigate how the process would work, if it chose to go down that path in future. The end result, if the motion had passed, would be a briefing for councillors prepared by officers. “I think a report would give us an understanding of what’s actually entailed,” he said. SEE AN INTERACTIVE MAP OF VICTORIA’S LOCAL GOVERNMENT AREA BOUNDARIES HERE “I firmly believe it’s something that may not happen whilst we’re here, or into the future, but a report would give us a better understanding.” Cr Whitfield and Cr Kirby argued it wasn’t necessary, noting it was “jumping the gun” to begin thinking about the process while the ratings review went on. “There are possible benefits for localities to be absorbed into our neighboring shires, but amalgamation means not only taking the premium parts of the Golden Plains, but the areas that need a lot of work and infrastructure as well, something the larger shires are likely to shy away from,” Cr Whitfield said. “I think realigning of the boundaries would only serve to make a particular area the outlier of their new shire, quite possibly receiving less attention than they do now,” “This is and should be a state gov initiative, and not an initiative of Golden Plains Shire, because this is not what our residents are telling us,” Cr Kirby added. READ MORE: Stunning remnants of a by-gone civic era: Ballarat’s town halls | PHOTOS Cr Sharkey reiterated in reply the motion was just to investigate options, not pursue any. “If there was something to happen, it would be something strategic and over a couple of years … this is one step of a 100 steps.” The question of changing up regional and rural shires could become more pressing, as regional towns grow into cities and cities continue to expand. Bannockburn, Golden Plains’ main city, is expected to double its population to 13,000 people by 2036, as more people take advantage of its proximity to Geelong – in neighbouring Moorabool Shire, Bacchus Marsh is also experiencing rapid growth. When the boundaries were drawn in the mid-’90s, a team of consultants took dozens of factors into account to make sure each council would be viable. According to one of the architects of the amalgamation plan, Leonie Hemingway, said any change would have to be community-led, but everyone involved would need to understand the implications. “There’s a lot involved, and you’d have to be pretty clear that this is the way you’d want it to go,” she said. “In our day, one of the simple tests was we did was we got every club and association in the area, in rural areas, and got the postcodes, which gave us an indication of how far out people would come – another one was the economic capacity of the municipality, the capacity to raise rates. “Some councils had good finances, some were very poor – we had to corral debt so ratepayers didn’t have to pay the debt for others.” There were changes to the initial maps drawn by the state government – for example, Torquay and Anglesea were initially in the City of Greater Geelong, but residents were clear they wanted something different. WHAT DO YOU THINK? HAVE YOUR SAY BELOW “They moved away from the city to be on the surf beach,” Ms Hemingway said. “They were living the life they were actually wanting, and why they were there. “Everything was formed around the community and who they were, how they worked, and how they wanted to live. “There’s so much to look at, it’s not a thing you just do overnight – there’s a ripple effect, where you’re gaining, the other municipality’s losing.” All councils must also avoid “the bickering of silly politics”, she added. “Local government is not about how far-left or how far-right, it’s about how far-sighted it is,” she said. “This is for the people of the future, their grandchildren, it’s not about whether you get back in again.” But say down the track, as the shires around Ballarat continue to grow and change, could there be an effort to adjust borders and welcome smaller towns to a future City of Greater Ballarat? Mayor Daniel Moloney said is “not currently considering any changes”. “We’d only consider it seriously if a community was pushing us hard for it, and it doesn’t seem like that’s the case,” he said. “There’s been benefits to Ballarat becoming a city, in ’93 or ’94, we had separate Wendouree and Sebastopol and Buninyong councils back then – it’d be a fairly inefficient model (now), but you also do lose that local touch. “I’m sure there’d be people in my ward alone, in Learmonth, Miners Rest, Cardigan Village, who feel a bit distanced from the municipality, and we need to work had to keep them well-served as part of an already big Ballarat.” Ballarat already provides some indirect services to surrounding councils, which is common for regional cities, he added – what is needed is more support for direct services, like additional grants for roads from state and federal governments. “The councils around us have an almost impossible task of trying to maintain services with such small populations,” he said. IN THE NEWS “It’s something I’m conscious of as chair of Regional Capitals Australia, they’re all cities in the 50,000s or 100,000s range of population, but they have a lot of shires around them that don’t have the financial capability to deliver everything their residents want – the best model tends to be smaller shires still representing their locals, and government grants to help them navigate challenges, especially the roads. “There’s a recognition we have a series of large regional cities that don’t just serve that city, they serve the entire region – it’s like drawing a 50km ring around Ballarat, and people within that 50km ring will still use Ballarat services.” Given the recent media attention on the pandemic-induced exodus from cities to the regions, all eyes will be on the 2021 Census results, expected in mid-year, to see exactly how populations have shifted in the last five years. Have you signed up to The Courier’s variety of news emails? 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