Port council speaks about proposed Dungog merger

There is no question that in this period of local government reform, both Port Stephens Council and Dungog Shire Council have the same preference to remain stand-alone.

However, the State Government has set a course for council amalgamations and despite being deemed fit for the future and assurances otherwise, Port Stephens Council was highlighted as a merger partner for Newcastle City Council, and Dungog with Gloucester-Great Lakes. It is our view that these particular proposals highlighted the vast differences between these local government areas (LGAs), despite proximity of location.

Consequently, this merger period has also prompted consideration of where similarities do exist with neighbouring areas, and exploration of opportunities to benefit the communities we serve. With that in mind, Port Stephens Council has resolved that if a merger is unavoidable, then amalgamation with Dungog Shire Council would be the best way forward for our community.

A marriage between Port Stephens and Dungog councils is based on two communities with great similarities, strong environmental, social and economic interests and would be built on a wonderful relationship that already exists between our two areas. One needs to look no further than last year's devastating April storm to see evidence of our councils working together to support the community with assistance with road works, clean-up operations and communications in the days that followed.

A merger between Port Stephens and Dungog represents greater community benefit than other merger options, with the opportunity to increase the scale and capacity of Dungog Shire through an investment of $2.4 million (net present value) over nine years to bring both areas together.

Our councils have similar approaches to service delivery in a number of areas including waste and library services, and there is opportunity for a combined council to build on that foundation with other services. Our people share a rich cultural heritage and strong sense of local identity, with respect for indigenous culture and opportunities for community service and participation through volunteering and community organisations. Our areas have significant natural environments with unique flora and fauna, and both councils have a depth of experience in managing fragile environments. In addition, Dungog shire is almost entirely within the Port Stephens Police Local Area Command, allowing an efficient response to emergency management.

Port Stephens Council has made a case to the State Government about the potential of a merger with Dungog Shire Council that would be built on preserving the unique rural qualities of our areas and championing the values, needs and interests of our villages. If amalgamations must go ahead, it is our position that the people of both LGAs now be given the opportunity to have their say on this option.

A petition signed by 16,000 Port Stephens residents opposed a merger with Newcastle City Council based on the disconnect between the urban sprawl of Newcastle and the rural villages of Port Stephens. That petition was delivered to NSW Parliament and is due to be debated today (Wednesday, March 23). We acknowledge a petition representing 14 per cent of electors of Dungog Shire, drawn from the towns of Dungog and Clarence Town, states their preference to become part of the Port Stephens local government area.

It is our view that community sentiment on a Port Stephens-Dungog option should be equally measured against the State Government's proposals for Port Stephens and Newcastle, Dungog and Gloucester and most recently, Dungog and Maitland.

It now rests with the Minister for Local Government to formally act to initiate a public inquiry process to allow this conversation to occur. Regardless of the outcome, what the merger debate has once again confirmed is the importance of talking to, and most importantly listening to our community.