A Sydney council has decisively lost its legal challenge against the state government’s plans to merge it forcibly with other councils, in a dispiriting sign for a string of other councils that have mounted challenges against the plans.
It took only minutes for Chief Judge Brian Preston of the Land and Environment Court to dismiss Woollahra Council’s challenge to Baird government plans to merge it forcibly with Randwick and Waverley councils.
Costs were awarded against the council, in what is likely to be interpreted as a major victory for the government.
Judge Preston dismissed many of the fundamental points the council raised against the policy, which would decrease the number of councils in NSW by about 40.
The news will be a blow to a string of other Sydney councils that have voted to commence legal action, including North Sydney, Ku-ring-gai, Mosman, Strathfield and Hunters Hill councils.
Those councils’ cases rest on many of the same principles advanced by Woollahra, but their cases are challenging different aspects of the manner in which the government made and executed the case for mergers.
Speaking briefly to reporters outside the court, the mayor of Woollahra, Toni Zeltzer, said she was “significantly disappointed” by the ruling.
The council has only a few days to appeal against the verdict. That window closes on Monday. It is not yet clear if the council will appeal but it has said it is considering its options.
If it does not, that means the state government could begin the process of merging the councils as early as next week. The government is understood to be waiting for Woollahra’s response to the verdict.
Other Sydney councils merged in May. But those mounting legal challenges are exempt until their avenues for appealing the government’s move are exhausted.
Local Government Minister Paul Toole said the legal win for the government showed that the government had followed the correct processes when merging NSW councils.
Woollahra had allocated most of its $180,000 annual litigation budget to fighting the case. Paying the government’s costs is likely to blow out that budget considerably.
Other councils mounting challenges, such as Ku-ring-gai, have already shelled out more than $120,000 in costs.
Councillors had argued the money was a defensible use of income from ratepayers because, they argued, rates would rise if the council was merged.
Greens MLC David Shoebridge acknowledged the decision was a setback.
But he denied it was the end of the road for Woollahra and the string of other councils fighting the government’s plans to amalgamate them with other councils.
“This is only the first stage in the legal challenge with an inevitable appeal being filed in the Supreme Court in coming days,” he said.
“Not only will we see an appeal in this case, but there are a series of separate cases, with separate legal points and unique factual circumstances from other councils that are also before the Courts.”