ON LINE  opinion  - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

Getting towards the end of a century of discussions?

By Robert Gibbons
Posted Thursday, 11 August 2011

The reduction or rationalisation of the number of municipal councils is a continuing issue in NSW.

There are conundrums of over a century in age including:

The Division of Local Government (DLG) has organised a seminar soon on "Destination 2036", to develop a four-year and longer term plan which successfully address "amalgamations, boundary changes, resource sharing and even whether councils in different areas should have different levels of responsibility". It is an internal industry forum, organised with the Local Government and Shires Association (LGSA), the managers' union (LGMA) and the Australian Centre of Excellence for LG (ACELG).

Will local community prospects be enhanced by the traditional approaches of NSW local government (as opposed to the best proven ideas from other jurisdiction's and even those of our ancestors); or will it be local managers' perpetual fear, BOHICA – bend over, here it comes again?

Is rationalisation appropriate, or necessary, or enough? Will NSW finally be evidence-driven through the many issues as Victoria has long been? Will evidence relate to known problems and data trends about community and economy; or to political and personal/industry predilections?

Most community leaders, councillors and managers are looking for inspiration if not salvation. There have been many inquiries into general and specific circumstances of councils. From all of these a list of over 40 major reform areas was derived by the current author. Each problem could have a solution; and the parts should stand as a coherent whole. Solutions were assessed against best practice criteria.

It is most important to develop reform schemes which are in harmony with the dominant culture and history of society. One creative set of responses was described in an earlier piece. This addresses old problems in new ways, not proposed in any other report, broadly as follows.

In historical context, councils have resisted amalgamations and "district" councils, and most notably in the 1950s the LG Association wanted to pursue district governments but its membership repressed the attempt. At the time councils were fighting co-operative planning through a County arrangement.

Among history's lessons, the Sydney Corporation Act 1842 allowed the appointment of specialist outsiders to the Council in addition to elected aldermen. (The Greater London Authority and others have a two-part franchise, to separate representation from leadership.)

Second, in 1880 the NSW Parliament set up a partnership with local government to fix Sydney's massive water, sewerage and drainage problems. There were three "presidential" directors appointed by the Government; with four other directors elected by the constituent councils.

Third, Sydney had a "greater Sydney planning council" from Postwar Reconstruction (1945) to 1964. Founder of the planning profession (with John Sulman), first LG Minister JD Fitzgerald's 1919 draft LG Act would have allowed one or more councils to prepare "planning schemes" for the Minister's consideration – implemented from 1945.

A comparison of Greater Brisbane and Greater Newcastle has shown the critical impact of franchise, politics and of the ward system. The early Greater Brisbane Council kept its rates down by using profits from trading arms to subsidise municipal administration. The government was annoyed and passed special legislation to appoint a State public servant in 1939 to take over the City's management, leaving the Council standing on the side. Newcastle's tribalism continued.

A major problem is the number of "hats" that mayors and councillors have to wear which cause overwork and stress, conflict and worry. Italian and other latin cultures have a high personal involvement by mayors but it's unlikely that Australians would tolerate that (a tendency that way led to the sacking of several councils). The Irish system has protections for general managers, to balance the aspirational roles of local politicians.

The mooted package of systemic and organisational reforms would enhance local democracy and councillors' regard, managerial professionalism, planning (and career prospects for planners), and the efficiency of state and local government. It has been endorsed by many community leaders, the most eminent of whom described it as a "good reference in future policy directions" in local governance reforms.

It is great that the local government community can discuss their ideas; so long as the whole process, from go to whoa, is on a well-lit path leading to a positive future for our communities which takes our communities with them.

It is also great to see the NSW Premier integrate planning, local government and executive management so as to achieve better outcomes; and for public servants to be able to open agenda to the best ideas from the community.

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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