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Can we make 'Localism' really work?

By Robert Gibbons - posted Friday, 6 May 2011


"Localism" means making communities more important than central bureaucracies of whom "Big Society" advocates rightly say they miss real priorities, slow down housing supply and affordability, and produce community disinterest and cynicism.

Australian local government was born in a frontier society where taxation was resisted and representation was restricted to the propertied. The open fields of Sydney, Newcastle and elsewhere (initially) had no building controls on sewage going straight into scarce drinking water.

That changed quickly, Adelaide being the first local government in the world to use proportional representation in 1840; with Sydney following two years later with the voting split between councillors and the aldermen. This split melded the NIMBY concerns of the wards (councillors) with the strategic orientation of the area (aldermen) in a way that is more democratic than the solely ward-based or area-based systems.

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Does it matter? You bet it does. Some local councils see cycles of:

  • Ethnic, family or other sources of clique domination and sometimes corruption.

  • "Self-righteousness, arrogance, and pigheadedness" producing "poor conduct" among ward representatives (the words of the Commissioner who inquired into Warringah Council).

  • Exploitation of street-level concerns to overcome major project or DA decisions.

  • Diversion of post-election spoils to the victors.

  • Capture of councillors by council workforces (who happen to be Party supporters and widely connected), leading to subsidised work practices.

On the other hand, some of the best ideas and efforts come from local communities. Their willingness to pay is intrinsic to improving infrastructure, cleanliness, safety and access.

The British Government has gone a lot further with its Localism legislation. Here are a few of their intentions:

  • Communities will lead the way in restoring civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth. Councillors are politicians and must be free to pursue issues they have campaigned on, separately from the obligations inherent in statutory planning.

  • Developers will have to consult communities and penalties will apply to developers who misrepresent their projects.

  • Planning officials will move from reporting to government to reporting to communities.

  • Regional planning bodies will be removed and Cabinet will make decisions on nationally-significant infrastructure.

The recently elected NSW Government is overturning Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act which transferred the power of approval over developments deemed significant to the interests of the state away from local government. However, it was the problems developers were having with councils which led to Part 3A in the first place. The Independent Inquiry chaired by Professor Percy Allan in 2005-06 reported that "[Our] public opinion survey found that town planning and development controls attract the least public satisfaction with council performance. To win the trust of residents, both local and state governments need to improve the policies, processes and structures that apply to this activity". ICAC sees this as the highest corruption risk activity in NSW.

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The way through the thickets of distrust and known problems seems to be via:

  • Increasing from the 17% in NSW last year, the proportion of DAs which meet pre-set guidelines (the state had 90,000 development applications of which 98% were under $1 million individually. In total they were worth over $18,000,000,000 and generating over 63,000 jobs).

  • Removing planners from Council influence through various means and achieving a higher usage of independent hearing and assessment "tribunals"

  • De-emphasising the planning responsibilities of councillors so they are seen to be politicians and advocates, setting rules efficiently, with managers ensuring probity and professional standards (safe from sacking if they displease the dominant faction)

  • Moving councils from a regulatory mindset to a facilitative one, with fewer concerns about operating, performance and legal matters; and giving more focus to planning for the frightening frequency and ferocity of climate events (as an example)

  • Changing the franchise to make aldermen responsible for area development, strategic planning and financial robustness.

Modernising our local governance framework will need much more than these, of course.

Getting the strategic planning bodies more in tune with community initiatives will, in Dr Peta Seaton's words, "… liberate policy creativity, decision-making …. A thousand policy flowers can bloom, so to speak, by encouraging people to create and implement policy at local levels that best suits their priorities and needs ("Creative Policy Destruction", Policy, 17 June 2010).

Old ways of thinking won't achieve that.

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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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