This analyst was asked in 2010 by the Hon Chris Hartcher MP to prepare his thoughts as a draft white paper, to maximise the potential of LG without amalgamations. The outcome was more successful than expected, indeed "the best LG reform report in Australian history" (Professor John Howard).
O'Farrell described it as "a good basis for future discussions' but went with the unholy alliance between mayors and managers as masterminded (!) by the Local Government Association = plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
See for example "Reversing Sydney's backward momentum" at http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/print.asp?article=13139 and "Establishing local leadership and strong policy" at http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=11894&page=0. "Implementing an integrated ...." at http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=12062&page=0 includes a downloadable file - all copyright.
Berejiklian has brought the bumbling Rob Stokes back into "planning & places" so he can again promise to do what he promised and failed to do before.
"Creative Reconstruction" was desired by the Planning Institute but they refused to pay a centime, the miserly, short-sighted so-called profession. They deny the spirit of the founders of their profession, JD Fitzgerald and John Sulman, two of the greatest of my forgotten heroes (note the (c), I'm moving on that).
It also should replace the Greater Sydney Commission which is a total failure.
WA Premier Barnett, Tasmania's Bacon and NSW's Baird and Berejiklian all failed miserably with their upfront and brutal attempts to reform Local Government. Victoria's Kennett achieved much although de-amalgamation pressures continue.
The former O’Farrell spokesperson on the environment, Catherine Cusack MLC, wrote that “It took the spacecraft Galileo six years to travel four billion kilometres. The journey to local government reform (in NSW) is set to take four times longer than a trip to Jupiter via Mars”. The former Victorian premier, Jeff Kennett, used a bedroom metaphor to describe the joy that NSW citizens would experience if then premier Barry O’Farrell got serious about LG reform.
Electricity, river cleansing, waste collection, food safety and air quality reforms, many railway stations and even the great reform package of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the underground “metro” rail and suburban electrification, were initiated within LG. However, the balkanisation of 40 to 60 LGAs in Sydney versus one big one and a few small ones in Brisbane rankled.
Premier Neville Wran famously said that the City Council had “no more power than a crippled preying mantis”. Private sector advocates have called for widespread amalgamations for many decades, focusing on the simplest measure, the number of bodies rather than the quality of performance; and LG has resisted reform even from within its own ranks, most especially the Cumberland County Council, Sydney’s “great experiment” (Denis Winston). Amalgamations happened elsewhere but the reformers including Bill McKell, Pat Hills and the greatest of all John Daniel Fitzgerald made no real progress post 1902.
After some 30 years, the O’Farrell to Berejiklian government had a series of inquiries underway, looking at alternative models and rescue mechanisms for failing municipalities and shires. It defeated the business community’s call for wholesale amalgamations but the planning reforms are taking many “planning” responsibilities off LG. As submissions to the exposure packages closed, which were the most appropriate directions for reform – all things considered?
The question remains, will the reviews of NSW local government – a full quarter of the public sector – make things better or worse for coming generations, which are already faced with a declining tax base and savage infrastructure backlogs? John Mant correctly pondered at the time whether the approach would produce “fiddling at the margin of change”.
The range of responsibilities, workloads and statutory interventions is ridiculous and way beyond the original concept of aldermen. There have been crises in various aspects including aspirational or Taj Mahal distortions, sackings of “whistle-blower” executive officers, intra-council conflicts, corruption, unresolved Code of Conduct conflicts (ironic), waste, desperate bids for rate increases and special levies, and so on. The Sydney Business Chamber and Committee for Sydney among others want to go to 10 councils, others to six, and northern NSW councils called for a cut in the number of Sydney councils.
An international review found that Australia’s geopolitical fragmentation is in line with Switzerland’s, Germany’s and the US’s and just above half of France’s. The same study found there are competitive advantages in having a range or choice, while “New regionalism focuses on the emergence of metropolitan governance as a result of negotiation processes between a variety of policy-relevant actors, rather than through hierarchy or competition”.
Most importantly, eminent NSW academics found that recent analyses focussed on
The issue of culture and functioning becomes more important than numbers. The dominant philosophy behind NSW planning reform in the last decade or so was to cut NIMBYism out of planning and development assessments; while the communities affected by imposed change became highly politicised. Submissions such as the Urban Taskforce's have praised localism but then suggested state intervention at regional and local levels. Such interventions had been removed under UK localism where there had been a sustained failure of central planning as in Sydney. Planning performance can be improved without intervention or onerous restructuring processes – through sensible rearrangements and culture improvements.
To quote Kubler,
The failures of the long-standing top-down planning system are seen in the “spatial blindness” that has damaged the prospects of Western Sydney as well as in the varying demographic projections and State interventions in site and area planning.
Councils have LEPs which date back to the early 1990s and have been modified 70 and more times – and even then, the DOP has missed errors in streetscape and site elements. The recent rail and transport visioning documents cannot guide regional and local planning in the bulk of Sydney’s western economy because they were largely ignored. The planning challenge there – including balancing population and employment growth, reducing car dependency and achieving prosperity - is so serious that the Macquarie Street approach cannot provide a sound basis for intergenerational improvement, not without a local bottom-up and solidly based holistic planning and funding cycle.
Widely rumoured is the wider introduction of popularly-elected mayors and restoration of their pre-1993 executive responsibilities (breaking the fundamental concept of separation of function). The Allan idea of removal of infrastructural functions (below) would reduce the significance of this. However, the inability to remove incompetent popularly-elected mayors and the lack of scrutiny committees as in the UK are impediments.
There is a documented tendency to nepotism, corruption, conflict and inefficiency, and the lack of well-established benefits (the conclusion of the only local academic study we are aware of).
Almost all of the alternative models at the moment go no further than forced amalgamations but there are two involving “planning” as well as “governance”. There are some “regressive” themes.
Professor Percy Allan and the Urban Taskforce tried to take up the former’s Secession – a manifesto for an independent Balmain local council (2001), arguing for groups of say 10 councils to have a shared services centre, removing about 90 per cent of their staffing. Planning reforms would be through the existing mechanisms such as expert panels. Councils would negotiate service agreements in line with budget contributions.
The benefits have been assessed by various parties and “we are obliged to draw the modest conclusion that while the thoughtful selection and application of shared service arrangements would almost certainly induce cost savings, it could not by itself solve the acute problems of financial sustainability confronting a majority of Australian local councils”.
The current author prepared “Creative Re-construction of NSW Local Governance” on the request of the Hon Chris Hartcher MP which was described in onlineopinion and formal submissions (all ignored by factionalised governments). It takes an holistic approach to the structure and culture of local and regional planning and finances and goes further than any other proposal while staying within Australia’s culture and traditions. The current local government review processes did not post this on their websites although the planning review did in part.
In short, Regional Planning Councils would be a state/local collaboration on historical lines (the Water Board’s 1880 legislation), the current Joint Regional Planning Panels would be removed, Regional Planning Boards would be obviated, and the Urban Taskforce’s suggested Shared Service Centres would parallel the RPCs in respect of commercial service delivery but not community governance. The RPCs would not be an additional layer of government.
Appeals on rezoning, DAs or whatever would be on matters of law, not merit. Justice would be direct and immediate on disputes within councils. The RPCs would relieve local government of much of the complexity and duress of direct service delivery but give control over negotiated service standards and adherence. The planning professionals would be corporatised, remunerated and trained appropriately, relieved of interference and micro-management, and sent back into communities and LGAs in far more effective ways. Democracy would be reinforced through the alignment of consultation zones (“precincts”) with electoral boundaries (“wards”).
A superior voting system is available from Australian and UK practice.
Most importantly, democratic processes would be linked with “willingness to pay”, heading towards a sustainable infrastructure funding cycle.
Federal and State governments do not have positive frameworks for vertical co-operation. Baird and Berejiklian trivialised LG by offering lollies to councils which do not make waves when their areas are harmed by their decisions - amalgamations, the WS City Deal and Federal roads and related gifting are prime examples.
There's a true and apocryphal story about a UK local authority facing a DA for a nuclear power station. The agency diverted the councillors' 100% attention into the bike shed in the staff amenity area. That is the West Metro - councils fighting over naming rights over stations without looking at project merits Vs known but ignored options.
The greatest failure within the core dimensions of international LG reform in recent times was the rejection of ReviveBlueMountains. Media played a role in defeating a community improvement proposal.
The Brookings Institute is leading a world charge to re-educate state and municipal stakeholders. “The 10 Lessons from Global Trade and Investment Planning in US Metro Areas” was released by Brookings and JPMorgan Chase in late May 2015, to cap off many previous publications. Four of its 10 Lessons especially related to the Blue Mountains and other regional destinations but especially:
The foundation of a strong global effort is, paradoxically, an even more intense focus on local business retention and expansion (BRE)
In 1997 the UK introduced “Twelve principles of best value” and then in 1999, a Best Value system designed to achieve continuous improvement in local government, linked with Audit Commission performance indicators (ACPIs) and the emerging Best Value PIs (BVPIs). This balanced economic, efficiency, environmental, equity and like outcome areas and forced councils to do proper assessments where they wished to persuade their communities and the government that they should charge more.
Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) brought the work of watchdogs together…. The results cover some of the areas of most concern locally - such as:
· local economy strength
· children’s well-being
· crime and safety
· care and health
· provisions for vulnerable people
· the quality of the environment
Clusters and geographic connections give firms a competitive advantage and typically form the basis of export and Foreign Direct Investment strategies
ReviveBlueMountains was the first application of the 360 degree UK “Best Value” methodology – which is not the pallid imitation of 1990s Victoria but a robust and community-orientated template. It was done by an individual, as a community-led intention, and not by government. The experience was fascinating:
Things got really interesting when the State Government, the ABC and the accommodation industry were approached:
The Energy Regulator had recently rescinded a rate decision as the operators had found calculation errors. I wrote to Premier Baird with the suggestion he do the same. His reply was mute but effective – he went onto ABC radio to say he had every intention to continue with the IPART method.The situation was referred to the new PM Turnbull as he had a “jobs jobs jobs” mantra and had committed to Tourism Targets – he rejected the case by saying that the operators had promised greater efforts. That squashed the explicit case I put, that the Government had a duty to oppose breaches of Competition Principles. The Revive case study would have been very useful in application to other struggling Tourism Districts, but that was not to be.Baird was Premier not much longer.
The ABC journos have a fair degree of culpability. The political editors of the Herald and of the Tele were not sufficiently interested to explore the inside story. The local newspaper was conflicted by being tied to Council advertising and civic functions - a normal position with a few notable exceptions such as the Southern Highlands/Goulburn papers.
Similar outcomes (including media detachment) were experienced in Cann River which had seen the closure of the 8th and last timber mill. The local MP, Darren Chester, did not reply and no level of government did a thing for that distressed community.
The same experience was found in Marysville: rudeness from the council and disinterest from State ministers. Its post-2009 reconstruction was clumsy and there was a genuine desire to revive the mountain village feel. I put together a package and tested it, to find strong pro-and anti-change factions, as well.
And then there were the mayor and CEO of the Mornington Peninsula council which included civic design “WOW” and congestion and accessibility patches, designed to build year-long visitage. The Federal MP is Greg Hunt and the result? You guessed it, snore