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Opposition to proposed merger of Newcastle and Port Stephens Councils

Dr Bruce Pease made this submission on behalf of EcoNetwork-Port Stephens to the Salamander Bay Public Inquiry on 4 February, 2016

EcoNetwork Port Stephens is a grassroots network of community groups and eco-businesses addressing local environmental and associated planning issues for the protection and conservation of our unique environmental assets.

We are not an advocate for the current Port Stephens Council. We advocate local community action to protect the unique environmental assets of Port Stephens. This can only be accomplished with adequate democratic representation on this and future councils.

We oppose the proposed merger of Newcastle and Port Stephens Councils because of the unacceptably extreme differences between them with regard to some of the principal factors outlined in Section 263(3) of the Local Government Act:

  1. There is no geographic cohesion of demographically based electoral representation between these two council areas. With more than twice the population size and ten times the number of people per square kilometre, the Newcastle Council area will undemocratically dominate electoral representation within the merged area.
  2. There is very little geographic cohesion of traditional environmental values between the two communities. Newcastle has sacrificed many of its environmental assets to make its mark as a significant industrial port city. Port Stephens has retained most of its unique environmental assets; such as Stockton Dunes, Tomaree National Park and the Port Stephens Marine Park in order to support high quality of life through retirement infrastructure, small scale agriculture and ecotourism.
  3. There is no geographic cohesion of rural communities between the two council areas because Port Stephens has a significant rural community while Newcastle has virtually none.
  4. We believe that the Ward system should be retained because it allows for scaling or weighting of electoral representation in recognition of significant geographic disparity.
  5. We believe that the proposed merger would be financially detrimental to the residents and ratepayers of Port Stephens in the short term and an environmental disaster in the long term.

We note that the Merger Proposal dated January 2016 also contains grossly misleading statements, such as: “This merger proposal has been informed by an extensive four-year consultation and review process.” The four-year consultation and review process resulted in an initial logical proposal to merge Newcastle with Lake Macquarie Council. The Newcastle – Port Stephens merger proposal was actually informed by 6 weeks of political bargaining and brain-storming.

In conclusion, we believe that the proposed merger will have no significant financial, representation or environmental benefits to Port Stephens. In fact, we believe that reduced demographic and electoral representation will significantly reduce the ability of local community groups to influence council decisions on resource allocation and environmental conservation in Port Stephens. In this familiar scenario, economic priorities of our demographically and financially dominant industrial and metropolitan neighbours on the other side of the Hunter River will lead to a downward spiral of prolonged neglect of our local environmental assets and infrastructure needs in Port Stephens.