Highlands residents’ no to amalgamation

STRONG support for the continuation of the Central Highlands Council in its present form was expressed at a public meeting at Bothwell earlier this week. More than 100 people attended at the Bothwell Town Hall, with the gathering given live coverage on Wednesday night’s ABC-TV news.

Meeting convener Ron Sonners said the municipality was one community even though it was made up of many small areas. “We are one community and we need to make our voices heard. It could have a profound effect,” Mr Sonners said.

Mr Sonners said it was vital that community members expressed their view on potential amalgamations so that the council could respond fully to the current review of Local Government, which has put forward several scenarios for the future of councils across Tasmania, including in what it calls the Central-Midlands Catchment, consisting of the Derwent Valley, Central Highlands, Brighton, Southern Midlands, Northern Midlands and Meander Valley municipalities.

Four options for the “catchment” include:

Scenario 1: Two councils

SCENARIO 1 establishes two new council areas within the Central and Midlands Community Catchment. The first (A) combines the existing Brighton, Southern Midlands and Derwent Valley LGAs, and part of Central Highlands including Hamilton, Ouse and Wayatinah.
The second (B) captures the remainder of the Central Highlands LGA, Meander Valley minus Hadspen, Carrick, Prospect Vale and Blackstone Heights, and the Northern Midlands (minus Perth, Evandale and Longford).

Scenario 2: One big central council

SCENARIO 2 establishes a single council for the Central and Midlands Community Catchment, with a population of 52,990. Under this scenario, the existing local government areas (LGAs) of Derwent Valley, Brighton, Southern Midlands, Central Highlands, Northern Midlands and Meander Valley are combined, minus the Launceston satellite commuting towns of Carrick, Hadspen, Perth, Longford and Evandale.

Scenario 3: Three new councils

SCENARIO 3 creates three new council areas for the Central and Midlands Community Catchment. Council A (population 27,831) combines the existing Northern Midlands and Meander Valley LGAs, minus the suburbs of Prospect Vale and Blackstone Heights. Council B (population 23,688) merges Brighton and Southern Midlands LGAs, and Council C (population 14,996) captures Derwent Valley and Central Highlands LGAs.

Scenario 4: Three different councils

SCENARIO 4 also creates three new council areas, but with different boundaries. Council A (population 15,060) combines Meander Valley (minus Hadspen and Carrick areas), Northern Midlands (minus Perth, Evandale, and Longford), and Central Highlands, from just north of Derwent Bridge, the Steppes and Interlaken. Council B (population 12,400) merges Derwent Valley with the southwestern portions of Central Highlands (retaining Derwent Bridge, Bronte Park and Waddamana, but excluding Bothwell and Interlaken). Council C (population 25,894) combines Brighton, Southern Midlands and the south-eastern portion of Central Highlands (Bothwell and Interlaken).

“From the Local Government minister Nic Street: The board is seriously actively considering reforms which we implemented will fundamentally alter the structure of local government,” Mr Sonners said. “The minister is committed to bringing the reform package to parliament for a decision. The board’s reform proposals are complex and require further analysis and design during the final stage. The report says mergers are necessary but will not happen voluntarily. It recommends that boundaries be developed and mandated by the government. The number of councils will be significantly reduced, which could mean severe and drastic changes for us,” Mr Sonners said.

Mr Sonners said the municipality had many strengths. “We have a strong community spirit that has been demonstrated tonight and will be demonstrated further, I am quite sure. We know and engage with our councillors ourselves and our council workers and administrative staff. We work together to put on the Hamilton Show and Bushfest. We support the heritage centre, schools, churches, sporting groups and the Miena Community Centre, We administer independent living units at Ouse, Bothwell and Ellendale is on the list. We have parks, barbecue facilities, playgrounds, caravan parks, camp grounds and boat ramps.”

Mr Sonners said the health outcomes of the people of the municipality were state and federal responsibilities but the council actively supported health at every turn. “We have a skilled and efficient workforce and the administrative staff serve us well. Road-making and maintenance are our major works and we have an efficient garbage collection. Our council supports the rural community and provides local employment.”

He said the municipality had a strong and vibrant business community and the council was in a strong financial position even though its rates and charges were among the lowest in the state. “That’s just some of the strengths that your council has. I suppose the question for you is, in an amalgamated council in any one of the four scenarios, are those strengths going to be maintained or better? The minister has said that cost savings will not occur under an amalgamated council. The purpose of this meeting is to ask you to provide feedback to the council for the review. A think-tank or brainstorming session. A solution is what we are after.”

Addressing the meeting, state opposition leader and member for Lyons, Rebecca White MHA, said the Labor Party did not support forced amalgamations. Responding to a question later in the meeting, opposition local government spokesperson Luke Edmunds MLC said the Labor Party was also opposed to the responsibility for planning to be forcibly removed from councils.

Ms White said there were many reasons to oppose forced council mergers. “Primarily, they have never proven to be the solutions to the problems that people say we have in local government. “It won’t make rates cheaper, it won’t necessarily make councils more efficient and it certainly won’t improve local representation and enhance the voice of your community,” Ms White said.

“We have serious concerns about the way this review is being undertaken by the Local Government Board, and particularly the rushed nature of it with some of the very short timeframes they’ve asked communities to provide feedback within,” she said.

Ms White said the Central Highlands Council was the smallest council by population on mainland Tasmania, but it charged the lowest rates of all councils. “So you are already well positioned, I believe, in terms of ratepayers in this municipality, the council is financial and it provides myriad services including assisting where there has been a market failure, particularly in healthcare. What worries us most about the proposal from the government in an amalgamation of the size they are looking at for this district, you will lose your local voice and your local representation. The greatest concern we have is that rural and regional Tasmania are going to be swept up in these forms and become the fringes of the metropolitan centres and regional and rural Tasmanians will lose their voice. We will fight against that.”

Central Highlands Council mayor Loueen Triffitt spoke briefly and thanked those who had come along to have input into the concerns about amalgamation. She said she had expressed her views in a flyer distributed at the meeting and confirmed that the council was opposed to forced amalgamations. Central Highlands Council deputy mayor Jim Allwright addressed the meeting, as did his fellow councillors Yvonne Miller, David Meacheam and Robert Cassidy. The gathering also heard from Southern Midlands Councillor Tony Bisdee OAM and Meander Valley Councillor Rodney Synfield.

The spirit of the Central Highlands community was mentioned by Lyons Labor MHA Jen Butler. “I remember sitting in this town hall with a lot of people and we were fighting to save the church. I also remember coming into this community when everybody was working together when the fires were threatening the Plateau. This community is amazing at looking after each other and having each other’s backs. What we have here is an opportunity to stand up and fight for what you believe in. I think the government needs to know that you don’t want to change your council, you don’t want to merge, you don’t want to lose your identity. So fight,” Ms Butler said.

Read more in the next print edition of New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News, out on June 23.

See more Derwent Valley and Central Highlands news

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