“Dubbington” – A case in favour of amalgamation of Dubbo City Council and Wellington Council
On 17 December 2015, the NSW Government unveiled a proposal to amalgamate Dubbo City Council and Wellington Council. The resulting outcry from senior staff and councillors from both Councils has been strident and vehemently opposed to the proposal. Many ratepayers and residents within the Local Government Areas will not understand the reasoning behind the proposed amalgamation. While each Council seems determined to remain independent, ultimately Wellington Council is not able to continue operating independently in the long term. Dubbo City Council has been operating with a business model for many years, which has resulted in the City of Dubbo thriving. So, why should Dubbo merge with Wellington?
Wellington is located 45km south-east of Dubbo. Other regional centres nearby include Orange, approximately 100km to the south-east, Mudgee, approximately 90km east and Parkes, approximately 110km west. Wellington is located at the junction of the Macquarie and Bell Rivers, with the Macquarie River flowing through to Dubbo. Transport links in Wellington include the Mitchell Highway, a major regional road linking Wellington to Dubbo and Orange, as well as the Main Western Railway, which also links Wellington to Dubbo and Orange. Lesser roads connect Wellington to Mudgee and Parkes.
Due to the relatively short distance from Dubbo to Wellington, many people live in either centre and commute to the other. One example is the large amount of employees at the Wellington Correctional Centre who live in Dubbo and commute to work. Many other people live in Wellington and commute to Dubbo for work or to shop. A community bus provides a public transport link between Wellington and Dubbo. Residents of Wellington tend to interact with Orange, Mudgee and Parkes less than with Dubbo.
Dubbo is an excellent example of a successful regional centre, acting as the hub for the central west. As such, Dubbo businesses are able to attract customers from nearby centres such as Narromine, Gilgandra and Wellington, while businesses in the neighbouring centres have little to no chance of attracting customers from Dubbo. Dubbo’s influence reaches far to the west, with many residents of western communities taking a “trip to the big smoke” when they go shopping in Dubbo.
The impact of Dubbo on economic development in surrounding communities is significant, with businesses being closed in the smaller surrounding communities or moved to Dubbo. Examples of this include Target Wellington which was closed, largely because of the fact that there is another Target store in Dubbo, 45km away. Doherty Smith & Associates have recently relocated our office to Dubbo to take advantage of the business opportunities available, taking 5 staff from Wellington.
Wellington Council are, sadly, part of the problem. Poor decisions have meant that Wellington Council have not offered effectual economic development or tourism strategies for several years. Senior staff turnover has been high, with a corresponding loss of trust with the community. The Council currently is rated as in a poor financial condition and has been rated as unfit for the future.
Currently, Wellington Council have no town planner on staff. A consultant is engaged for any planning assessments that must be undertaken, and also for health and building matters. In addition, Wellington Council currently have no Economic Development officer. The Technical Services (engineering) department of Wellington Council currently has no director.
There are several issues with the current lack of staff at Wellington Council, as follows:
- Lack of planning staff means development is at risk of being adversely affected. Development is directly related to the economic development of a town.
- Where consultants are engaged, they charge much more than Council would pay for permanent staff.
- Many of the consultants that have been engaged by Wellington Council in the recent past are not located within the Wellington Local Government Area, meaning all monies paid to them are leaving the area.
- Consultants are not as intimately familiar with the specifics of the town and local government area, leading to poor planning decisions, poor response times and unsatisfactory results for applicants.
- Lack of an economic development officer means that Council are not able to effectively assist local businesses, support economic development and improve the financial situation of the local government area.
- Lack of planners on staff means that the planning legislation and policies such as the Local Environmental Plan and Development Control Plan do not adequately consider local details. An example of this is the proposed extension of the Wellington Heritage Conservation Area in 2012, inappropriate minimum lot size mapping and the lack of a policy dealing with boundary adjustments.
- Wellington Council now has a reputation amongst planning, engineering and health and building professionals and other allied fields as a place with a high turnover of staff and, as a result, many professionals will not consider working there.
Dubbo City Council have an extremely strong planning department with experienced town planners in both strategic and general planning areas. The increase in their workload by the proposed amalgamation with Wellington would be in the order of 10% in terms of development applications. Strategic planners would be able to take a more holistic view of the region when considering strategic planning matters such as minimum lot sizes, zonings and land uses.
Dubbo City Council engineering staff are experienced and able to manage large projects. It seems unlikely that the addition of the Wellington LGA area to their portfolio would cause them major problems. Dubbo City Council also has excellent economic development policies and staff, with the capability of improving economic development in Wellington as well as Dubbo.
The rationalisation of positions between the two councils should mean economic advantages: there would be no need for two general managers, no need for two Directors of departments. Outside staff will still be required to manage Council assets such as roads, parks and other facilities. Where large scale studies are required, such as revisions of planning legislation or formation of strategies, economies of scale mean that the combined area, although larger, will cost less on a pro-rata basis than two separate studies.
Lack of representation is an argument put forward by both Dubbo City Council and Wellington Council against the proposed amalgamation. Currently, Wellington Council has 9 councillors while Dubbo has 11. No new council representatives are proposed for the amalgamated council. Wellington Council residents currently have a ratio of councillors to residents in the order of 1 to 900 – much higher than the state average. The resultant ratio of councillors to residents will be about 1 to 4400. This does not seem unreasonable when compared to most other councils in NSW.
Wellington local government area has nowhere left to turn. The current Council has been rightly judged unfit for the future. Both Wellington and Dubbo Councillors and Dubbo senior staff are taking a selfish and immature view, trying to prevent the amalgamation. It would seem more rational for Dubbo City Council to form a strategy for the amalgamation and embrace the opportunity for growth and change. This is a chance to make Dubbo a true regional force and benefit residents in the Wellington local government area with the results of their relationship with Dubbo. Wellington residents and councillors who are intimidated by the possibility of amalgamation must recognise that the rates in the Wellington local government area are uncomfortably high, and the services provided by Wellington Council in return is unsatisfactory. It is time for Dubbo City Council to become Dubbo Regional Council, step up, take responsibility and build a future for the region.