Building Better Regional Cities Program councils need a better deal

The Good Oil by Rod Brown*

Julia Gillard says a re-elected Labor Government would give a $200 million boost to affordable housing via a Building Better Regional Cities program.

Only cities with significant population growth will be invited to apply – with 15 winning councils to receive $13 to $15 million each for infrastructure such as roads, drains, and community facilities, to facilitate new housing. This is quite flawed.

Firstly, housing is one small part of the regional development equation – if this program is to have legs, it needs to also cover infrastructure, education, training, environmental management and social harmony.

Secondly, it’s yet another beauty contest, whereby cities are pushed to compete rather than collaborate.

Thirdly, there is an arbitrary minimum of 30,000 population – but some smaller coastal towns are swelling.

And why omit the second tier regional cities?

This program will not happen, at least in the current format, assuming of course Labor wins.

The major omissions from the list of 46 cities are: Armidale, Griffith, Kempsey, Taree, Mount Isa, Moe, Morwell, Wangaratta, Horsham, Seymour, Swan Hill, Albany, the booming Pilbara towns, Murray Bridge, Victor Harbor, the Spencer Gulf cities and Alice Springs. Councils interested in lobbying for a better deal should contact us.

Now THIS is a regional policy!

The major parties have been struggling to cobble together a regional policy. And as for the Greens, I shudder to think.

Anyway one Party asked my advice, so in the interests of an even handed approach, I circulated a draft to some Cockatoo members, and the following is our conclusion.

“Best practice regional development involves enhancing the competitive advantage of regions, opening them out to the world, and value adding their resources. This will be achieved by the following steps.

  • Dispensing with the current maze of competitive programs and grants, which only set one town or region against others. Dispense with handouts to marginal electorates.
  • The identification of broad areas of international competitive advantage held by regions and cities, towns and localities within them.
  • The development of specific regional trade and investment proposals that align with these areas of competitive advantage. These proposals will be bundled, where possible, into commercially attractive packages, and presented to the international and local investment community; that is foreign companies, foreign government agencies, local super funds and institutional investors.
  • The introduction of a program of trade and investment missions (both inwards and outwards), to introduce regions and specific regional proposals to the world. This will be complemented by regional brand development where appropriate. These will be joint exercises with the States, Regional Development Australia Committees, and industry groups.
  • Reinvigoration of the TradeStart program, including restoration of the regional positions that were cut in the May 2010 Budget.
  • The preparation of infrastructure audits to improve the coordination of infrastructure expenditure and enhance regions’ competitive advantages. This will be done in collaboration with the States and local development agencies.• A strong focus on ‘people’ issues ­– skills audits, workforce planning, links
    to immigration and settlement strategies and community development (important in attracting skilled people).
  • The development of a system of regional budgeting to help councils and regional stakeholders plan their future.
  • The funding of industry cluster programs to enhance trade, investment and infrastructure initiatives arising from the above.”

King Island pushes the envelope

Each month we feature a region with potential to build on particular competitive advantages. This month we focus on King Island.

This island in Bass Strait is a fascinating case study for regional development practitioners. King Island cheese and beef is now an international brand.

Locals explained to me a few years back that the triggers were strong collaboration between its farmers, their uptake of quality assurance systems, their attention to the whole supply chain, and the vision of the Gilbertson family when it ran the abattoir.

However the competitive disadvantage of the island remains the cost of airfares to the mainland, which restricts tourists arriving to enjoy firsthand the food, the marvellous nine hole golf course, the scenery, walking trails and so forth.

I figure that if that if the island’s population could recover to around 3,000 (currently 1,700) and if Greg Norman or similar further developed the golf course, more competitive airfares might ensue, and thus strengthen its tourism and accommodation revenues. But I digress.

Last month the prospect emerged of King Island becoming a home to new settlers and displaced families from overseas. King Island Council sees it as a safe and beautiful place with a welcoming population, and many displaced families are looking for such locations.

Mayor Charles Arnold explained that they are not looking for a detention centre, or secure accommodation.

“What we offer on King Island is a place families can live and be part of a warm community,” he said. “We are also unique in that we have over 100 jobs that are presently filled by international students on working visas. While these students fit in very well, we really do want people to move here permanently.”

Gee, I reckon King Island Council deserves the highest praise for thinking outside the square and trying to solve the refugee problem in a more humanitarian and cost effective manner than some of the other efforts to date.

As Charles emphasised, it’s about new settlers who might come from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever, to work in the abattoir, the cheese factory, the various farms or shops.

It follows the example of the Cobram area in Victoria, which has assimilated Iraqi refugees into the rural lifestyle and job market.

Charles indicated that his proposal is receiving serious consideration by the Department of Immigration.

It seems that King Island would be best suited for families already assessed and given residency in Australia.

In any case, while immigration policy is the big upfront issue, it surely needs some cross silo consideration to include employment, training, workplace relations, small business assistance, family and community development and so forth.

Leaving it solely to the Department of Immigration risks a ‘thanks for your suggestion’ response.

I hope I’m wrong, because it’s a great test case for Federal and State agencies to work with the King Island community to develop a best practice model.

In doing so, it would help other councils looking to push the envelope.

*Rod Brown is a Canberra-based consultant specialising in industry/regional development, investment attraction, clusters and accessing Federal grants. He also runs the Cockatoo Network. He can be contacted at apdcockatoo@iprimus.com.au or phone
(02) 6231 7261.

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