Each edition we feature the views of a Local Government Association President. The following is from Councillor Chris Vardon, President of the Shires Association of NSW.
Local Government in NSW is intrinsically aware of the priorities of its communities. Jobs, a secure future, access to affordable services like water and sewerage, adequate recreation and leisure facilities and the ability to enjoy natural environments are expectations which we all share. In particular in rural and regional areas of NSW, concerns about jobs and services are acute and it is in these communities that Local Government plays a fundamental and vital role.
So which sphere of government is best placed to provide particular services and how can we establish workable, collaborative arrangements between the spheres to provide a far greater, whole of government type approach to supporting communities?
Increasing demands from communities coupled with the rationalisation of government services have seen the functions of Local Government expanded enormously in recent years. Council responsibilities now routinely encompass activities including local and regional planning, environmental health, pollution control, natural resource management, community services and economic development.
We are continually being asked to do more with less. Local Government is required to exercise additional responsibilities and take on extra roles without adequate resources or support. This is particularly apparent in the area of natural resource management.
We have also seen fundamental changes to the way Councils do business, with an increased emphasis on internal restructuring, community accountability, corporate and business planning, benchmarking and performance indicators and competition principles.
And while Local Government welcomes the opportunity to improve the way we do business by taking on corporate style management principles and by being more accountable and transparent, it must be recognised that this can often impose a significant additional burden, particularly on smaller rural Councils.
Preparing detailed management plans, community plans and environment reporting systems, as well as embarking on extensive consultation programs for almost every activity it conducts, means many Council resources are often diverted from other important community functions.
The same can be said in the planning and development area, where Councils have taken on additional roles and responsibilities and yet are constrained in their ability to recoup funds, through application fees and developer contributions, by State Government controls.
Most Councils are acutely aware of the need to contain expenditure and pride themselves on their ability to continue to service their communities effectively. In fact, many Councils are leading the field by embracing highly innovative schemes and solutions on behalf of their communities, particularly in the area of social and economic advancement and cultural arts development.
We believe it is time to review the roles and responsibilities of Local Government and, in particular, focus on the following.
- The lack of a consistent approach among State agencies in dealing or working with Councils. This inconsistent approach has resulted in the development of complex or inappropriate systems of program delivery.
- Continuing deficiencies in Local Government's financial capacity to play an enhanced role.
We need to develop a shared vision between Local and State Governments. Our proposal is to develop protocols which promote cooperation between state agencies, Councils and other stakeholders, in order to ensure programs are tailored and appropriate to particular community needs. We also need a review of Local Government financing arrangements, to provide strategies to ensure adequate provision of services into the future.
Restrictive practices, such as rate capping, need to be replaced by more productive mechanisms. In addition, Local Government in NSW should command its fair share of the National Competition Policy Payments, which is the case in every other state, and perhaps have access to a portion of the GST revenue injection that the State Government will shortly enjoy.
Local Government has long been a cornerstone in the lives of many communities. In many rural areas, Local Government is often the lifeblood of the community, providing most of the essential services and social support mechanisms which lead to cohesive communities.
It is time now to acknowledge the energy, drive and commitment of the people who serve these communities and set in place more effective processes and collaborative arrangements between all spheres of government.