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Establishing local leadership and strong policy

By Robert Gibbons - posted Wednesday, 13 April 2011


Seventy four years ago the eminent Professor FA Bland called for local government to be led by one of the "strongest" ministers. Forty years later the local government historian Frederick Larcombe condemned the "'stop-go' tactics by alternate politically opposed governments (which have) contributed greatly towards the present ineffectiveness of the local government system".

One of Bland's "strongest", new Premier Barry O'Farrell, has inherited the placement of that portfolio in his department and is responding to Sydney's planning morass. There have been many reports calling for this-or-that remedy to current issues, most especially the growing pressure to re-empower local government, hasten housing supply and strengthen infrastructure.

Local government legislation in Australia and especially NSW is "permissive" and "enabling". This means that councils can provide leadership and perform strongly if they wish to, subject to prudential and probity rules. The NSW Act 1993 requires councils to have but one employee as a minimum and adopt any structure. There are some penalties, no incentives, and a reliance on self-governance or improved behaviour through toothless codes. (That 10 councils were sacked between 2003 and 2008 alone is startling and will be explained later.)

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However, the Sydney planning basin contains 62 councils and indeed the first reform is the call for council amalgamations, for example by the Sydney Business Chamber on two occasions, to reduce 41 councils to 10. The consulting engineers' association had 40 going down to 11. There are so many others of less specific nature in the press, including by federal ministers Albanese and formerly McKew.

The Chamber used the Department of Planning's sub-regional boundaries without analysis of operational or economic impacts and put Sutherland in with St George, the minnow swallowing the whale, the boundaries uneven in population content. The engineers developed their own boundaries (Sutherland standing alone) but with similar analyses – a general belief in loss of leadership and potential significant savings (to summarise). The last royal commission on this – 3 members, 3 different conclusions – was in 1945 and Stan Haviland's "eight cities" option was the most popular. All and every attempt failed largely due to Party and petty interests in local government itself. The councils' Associations made attempts to adopt district councils but were defeated by their members.

Greater Sydney was supposed to reverse the filching of "local" systems by state undemocratic instrumentalities, and there might have been significant economies then, 80 years or so ago. That idea had died by 1932 and even more so as the systems became corporatised or privatised beyond local government's purview.

The facts have been reported by the Australian Institute of Urban Studies (with the UNE's Centre for Local Government) in "Is Bigger Better?" – no; by Professor Percy Allan in "Secession" in 2001; and by the LGSA's Independent Public Inquiry (led by Allan). Big councils can provide a wider range of services, smaller ones distribute them better, and "virtual councils" can be very small but contract many services – bringing local communities closer to their taxation and service decision-making processes. The big savings are not there any more. However, many believe that planning approvals (as opposed to planning politics) are beyond the capacities of local representatives. The Local Government Association's Independent Inquiry found that less than one in ten residents supports the determination of development applications solely by councillors, and industry certainly agrees.

Given that there are planning advantages in co-ordinated councils, why would Sydney need 10 or 11 medium-sized councils when the advantage would lie in bringing transport, housing, public services, political processes, funding schemes and communities into integrated catchments – and there are not 10 of those? Brisbane and Auckland are more integrated. Future generations would see the 10 or 11 options as a missed opportunity.

On the other hand, the Cumberland County Council from 1945 was a "great experiment" in integrated planning but it had died by 1959, undermined by both local councils and developers. The same fate was suffered by other attempts to integrate governmental planning, in 1948, 1950 to '52, the 1960s, and on to the 2000s. As Sir Charles Cutler said in 1975, "Past experience indicates that it is very difficult to co-ordinate public bodies with traditional sovereignty in their own fields…. Representation has often been token …". Craig Knowles' attempt was killed by then transport minister Michael Costa.

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We come to how well councils perform in their major functions. The second broad idea from the grass-is-greener camp is to do what English cities are doing, introduce popularly-elected full-term mayors with (a) leader and cabinet, or (b) elected mayor and cabinet structures, increasing political leadership and responsibility while reducing the appearance of managerialism. This is almost the City of Sydney model in reality (rather than law), and applies in Brisbane with modifications. Local politicians would prefer to regain sovereignty.

The NSW Local Government Act 1993 sought to establish "separation": politicians do the community leadership and set policy while managers do the probity, prudence and implementation. This is a modification of what Charles Rightor wrote of in 1919 regarding Dayton's (Ohio) famous experiment after a long period when, across America, candidates for mayor, commissioner of police, aldermen, council managers and dog catchers appeared on the same "long" ballot paper, one Party versus the other:

A city is a great business enterprise whose stockholders are the people… Our municipal affairs would be placed upon a strict business basis and directed, not by partisans, either Republican or Democrat, but by men who are skilled in business management and social science; who would treat our people's money as a trust fund, to be expended wisely and economically, without waste, and for the benefit of all citizens. Good men would take an interest in municipal government, and we should have more statesmen and few(er) politicians.
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About the Author

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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