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A case study in 'broken democracy': the Blue Mountains, NSW

By Robert Gibbons
Posted Thursday, 26 March 2015

Localism legislation in the UK is showing meaningful achievements with a realistic expectation that averages and outcomes in local administrations will improve. This was after controversy over a study in 2008 by Policy Exchange about northern English cities being economically and socially unviable. The "academic" prognostications were shown to be nonsense when Experian recently reported the opposite – Manchester being Number 1 in the national "city vibrancy" list with 4 non-London centres in the top 10 – add Canterbury, Leeds and Lancaster. It seems that localism trumps cynicism.

Vibrancy is needed in NSW where the State Government has a target of creating 150,000 new jobs and where regional tourism is important in spreading any growth but is slipping backwards according to official statistics.

The decrepit 19th Century British local government legislation we inherited then is the culture that is still dominant, with balkanisation of governance, controversy in many large and small councils and polycentric control of political and budgetary matters. The application of UK "best value" techniques has shown the costs in the case of the world-famous Blue Mountains.

The hypothesis is, in such challenged localities, as in communities facing social dislocation such as Newcastle in NSW and Detroit and Baltimore, the shock of change needs to be directed into constructive localism.

A century ago Sydney's business leaders applied their British educations to Sydney's chronic problems and leveraged-up the onset of bubonic plague in 1900 to create an Improvement Council (1900 to 1912). Sydney was briefly the Social Laboratory of the world. That shock allowed civic leaders to pull a complacent society out of the doldrums.

On Sydney's fringe, the Blue Mountains succeeded in its most immediate challenges but then retreated into an intense borough-based eco-conservatism. The consequences came to be akin to a cancer: falling macro trends in tourism, jobs and employing companies; and rising municipal rates without benefits, with politics as superficial as newspaper front pages, all without constructive community engagement.

This tale of a "bush capital mentality" shows the risks of "regression" outlined in ResPublica's "Civic Limits" (Wilson and Leach). The Mountains communities have no endogenous agents of change – the culture repels reformers with venom; imposes unnecessary inter-generational risks and costs; and endures municipal malevolence which manipulates flows of information to and from the community. The costs include taxes on families being higher by tens of millions of dollars a year while land supply for essential housing was not provided.

Planning myopia means politicians cannot see past the present, they see what they can see today but not into the future. Spatial blindness means they think as far as they see, not what lies beyond the innercity boundaries to the great expanses of Sydney's suburbs and industries. Local politicians in entrenched local stasis are as susceptible as any.

An enveloping crypto-political truth came from Professor George Williams, Professor of Law at the University of NSW:

A lack of enforceable rules and an absence of other accountability measures means that political parties are prone to develop into individual fiefdoms. Key figures have been able to distribute power through patronage networks in return for favours.

As "Civic Limits" put it about regressing:

When organisations and individuals are faced with pressures, they have two basic choices: i) to transcend the difficulty and explore new possibilities, or ii) to regress to a previous level of concern with a smaller horizon…. Unfortunately, as we feel pressured, we end up tending to look after 'us and ours' … there is a very real danger that if we simply accelerate civic involvement …we will create an army of people who will use involvement simply as a means of blocking change.

As an example, an official Blue Mountains housing review in 2010 reported that "The low take up of alternative dwelling development opportunities is a matter of considerable concern. There appears to be a serious mismatch between housing supply and demand in the Blue Mountains, and existing policy settings". This has disappeared from Council documents and even been contra-cited in a recentreport which claimed that that review had supported the Council's settings. (The business lobbies seem to be unaware of such aspects of municipal performance.)

Community re-engagement has come to be a special challenge for localism. It will aid a summary if we define a framework of "dimensions of effective democracy" (and indicators of "brokenness"):

The problems and solutions after analysis are seen to be, on the basis of research and consultation with local stakeholders:

Electoral

Voters pick a party/candidate then find cross-party collusion. A 2005 ABC TV Stateline expose highlighted waste which forced economies but changes in 2010 saw regression. Community is given "options" which reflect management values with misleading platitudes – amounting to "pointless consultation". Tourism, economic and like are delegated with only partial accountability, with boards producing political announcements but not successful strategies. Lobbies which are critical of councils in other places are entangled in municipal politics and funding largesse.

Communications

Main perceived issues are at the back of survey reports and not included in the pre-formatting of topics. Definitions and classifications change between years, breaking continuity. Leading citizens take no role in articulating community needs due to cynicism.

Taxation

Taxes have risen out of relationship to services, and incidence differences have been extreme between villages. Official studies said that development imposts impede development of even "employment lands"

Effectiveness

Budgets use activity-based KPIs not outcomes, reflecting managerial "needs", and this cascades down into all other processes. Housing affordability, tourism growth, employment growth, reduced commuting by road and rail and provision of social support etc are not included. Agencies have provided $350,000 for a beer vat, tables and chairs, glassware and cutlery etc for one restaurant's setup which will compete with near non-subsidised competitors.

The "remedy" is arguably along localism lines:

  1. Legislate to increase local accountability, create misuse of public office penalties, and enforce skills in community engagement processes
  2. Impose an independent audit bureau on councils that are in crisis, to separate managerial from community interests and help government to set outcome-based KPIs
  3. Fund an independent regional policy and strategy unit, with budget for engagement.

Detroit was faced with earth-shaking unemployment due to the winding-down of car manufacture. The civic, business and community leaders said, put all our resources into a coordinated pool, use our retired people creatively, and focus on things we can do well. That is not yet working (and Baltimore is dealing with deep issues slowly) but is similar to Newcastle's recovery where excellent civic design and setting-up 8 industry clusters promoted appropriate replacement activities – and that has worked even though its civic governance remained dysfunctional.

In Britain's "vibrant" cities, as in Newcastle, did the people, acting locally, achieve the unexpected? In the Mountains there is a disconnect between resources and community, between parties and people, between community pain and Big Business resources. There is a need for genuine, disciplined Localism reforms to overcome institutional impediments. As Malcolm Turnbull put it in July 2014, "If you want anyone to change, you have to persuade them they have a problem. Then you have to explain the solution".

The current Mountains malaise can be replaced by State leadership and local reforms.

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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