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The winds of change

Local governments around Australia are facing some significant reforms; some of the proposals are being welcomed by the sector, some are not so popular.

The Independent Local Government Review Panel in New South Wales, commissioned by the Minister for Local Government, Don Page, has released the feedback from Stage One of its review, which involved a statewide listening tour and invitations to comment on its discussion paper, ‘Strengthening Your Community’.

According to the feedback, local government in NSW needs three main things for its future: adequate ‘Resources’, improved ‘Relationships’ and the chance to ‘Realise’ its full potential — what have now been dubbed the ‘three Rs’ of local government.

Panel Chairman, Professor Graham Sansom, said that the 215 submissions to Stage One of the review were very diverse: “People addressed everything from participatory democracy to stormwater drainage disputes, but a number of clear messages have emerged.

“There was a very strong call for better resourcing of local government, if councils are to provide the level of service that people will expect in the future ... We have some interesting ideas to discuss as we enter the second round of consultation, but it’s clear that neither state nor federal governments have a ‘pot of gold’ to hand over to councils.”

By and large, the response to the first round of consultation has been extremely positive, with councils and associated bodies across NSW showing a clear intent to work constructively with the Panel to tackle the pressing issues of local government reform.

President of the Local Government Association of NSW, Councillor Keith Rhoades said that, “Given the multiple reviews underway into several pieces of state legislation impacting NSW local government, including the Local Government Act 1993, the Local Government and Shires Association (LGSA) looks forward to reviewing the Panel’s next discussion paper, ‘A Case for Change’, to be released in November 2012.”

Once upon a time in the West

Proposals for reform are not being met with such positivity in Western Australia, where the recently released State Government report from its ‘Review of Metropolitan Local Government‘ has provoked a strong reaction from councils.

The report has recommended cutting the 30 metropolitan councils down to 12, a move that has many of the affected councils reeling with the implications.

The City of Stirling has questioned the viability of the amalgamations, particularly in terms of the reported cost of the process, which it has been suggested could exceed $200 million.

Acting Mayor of the City of Stirling, Councillor David Michael, said that disbanding all thirty local governments to form twelve new ones is radical, questionable and a very costly exercise.

“For more than ten years, the City of Stirling has been debt-free with considerable reserves for major strategic projects that have been built up over a period of time through prudent financial management, where many others do not have this same financial viability – why not decide which of the local governments have the right formula and amalgamate from there?”

The Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) has also stepped into the debate on behalf of its member councils, arguing that the timeframe for responding to the report sees the State Government stalling on the recommended reforms until after the next election.

WALGA President, Mayor Troy Pickard has called for a consultation period of two months, instead of the proposed five months, so that the community is aware of the Government’s position prior to going to an election in March 2013.

Mayor Pickard said, “The State Government has been consulting with Local Government on reform for the past four years. The sector is well up to speed with the issues and does not need longer than two months to provide reasoned and considered feedback.

 “Even the report’s authors are urging the Government to make more timely decisions and not undergo further delays.”

Mayor Pickard said that, for the most part, local government would be supportive of the majority of the recommendations and recognised the need for change.

“I encourage the sector to resist making a knee-jerk reaction to the Robson Report, but rather to take the opportunity to review this comprehensive and well considered document and to engage their elected members and community in formulating a response that they believe is in the best long term interests of sustainable local government.”