Submission to the Independent Local Government Review Panel on the Future Directions for NSW Local Government Discussion Paper
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the consultation paper prepared by the NSW Independent Local Government Review Panel, ‘Future Directions for NSW Local Government. Twenty Essential Steps’. MACROC would like to commend the Panel on the level of research and consultation undertaken as part of the review process and for the thoughtful and innovative options that are presented in the consultation paper.
MACROC is the regional organisation of councils for the Macarthur area of South West Sydney. Formed in 1985, it represents the local government areas of Camden, Campbelltown and Wollondilly. MACROC’s role is to identify issues of regional importance and advocate for positive regional outcomes. Regional issues for the Macarthur region include managing population growth, transport infrastructure planning, employment generation, economic development and land use planning. South West Sydney is the area targeted by the State Government to accommodate the major proportion of Sydney’s projected growth and the challenge for local government will be to continue to provide all members of our community with the high level of service they expect.
MACROC has been pleased to support the NSW Independent Local Government Review Panel in the process of developing a strategic response to the challenges facing local government and supports many of the options outlined in the consultation paper.
However MACROC is disappointed that this latest options paper seems to remove regional organisations of councils from the process of local government reform. This shift is difficult to understand as throughout the process that commenced with Destination 2036 the role of ROCs was always part of the discussion. There was a good deal said at Destination 2036 about the role that regional organisations had to play in the process of local government reform. The Destination 2036 Action Plan referred a number of actions to the NSW Independent Local Government Review Panel and one of these is to ‘develop options and models to enhance collaborations on a regional basis through regional organisations of councils’.
MACROC does not see the need to replace ROCs with county councils and believes that councils should be able to choose whether they want to expand the role of their ROC or establish a new county council. MACROC believes that rather than establishing new bodies the role and legislatively recognised position of ROCs should be strengthened and mandated to allow them to provide the expanded services that may be required.
The research paper ‘A Comparative Analysis of Regional Organisations of Councils in NSW and Western Australia’ highlights the diversity of governance models and the capacity of regional organisations of councils, and concludes that differences in ROCs reflect the resourcing provided by member councils, varied size and geographical locations and regional priorities.
The factors that contribute to a successful ROC, irrespective of size, are identified as a strong commitment by members, mayors and general managers who understand the importance of regionalism, as well as appropriate administrative/operational processes and sound relationships with other levels of government.
The Draft Action Paper and the Minister for Local Government’s Media Release of 3 November 2011 ‘Regional Approach a Key to Council Reform’ placed a strong emphasis on regional organisations of councils being an effective mechanism for delivery of shared services. However it should be noted that this is only one of the many functions ROCs perform. Regional capacity building and regional advocacy are still a primary function of most ROCs and all ROCs are involved in some form of advocacy. Activities include identification, prioritisation and research of key regional issues and submissions on regional issues to inquiries etc.; correspondence and meetings with government departments, Ministers etc.; participation in interagency meetings, consultations, focus groups and other activities conducted by government agencies; media releases; regional summits and forums; and the development of regional demographic and economic profiles.
MACROC believes that regional organisations of councils have a contribution to make to regional collaboration and coordination in local government in New South Wales however acknowledges there needs to be consideration given to capacity and resourcing as well as the legislative framework that ROCs operate within.
In ‘Future Directions for NSW Local Government. Twenty Essential Steps’, the Panel in looking at structural reform seems to be suggesting that regional organisations of councils be replaced by ‘new look’ County Councils. The Panel concluded from the research it commissioned on ROCs that the performance of ROCs patchy and from that concluded that a more robust statutory framework was required at a regional level.
MACROC believes it would be more effective to build on the strength and resources already in place as well as the experience of organisations established to perform many of the services promoted by the Panel.
MACROC would agree with the Panels assertion that stronger regional governance is a central plank of local government reform. Regional organisations of councils are already well placed to support the work of councils and facilitate more efficient and effective State-Local relations especially in the areas of strategic planning, economic development, infrastructure provision and service delivery. Legislation around regional cooperation would strengthen the role of ROCs.
In the discussion paper it states that the Panel is “concerned, however, that on current indications there is little likelihood of voluntary amalgamations occurring on the scale required…This applies particularly to the metropolitan area and this is one of the reasons why the Panel explored the option of county councils.”
MACROC seeks clarification around the establishment of a county council for Sydney Metropolitan Region. Is the Panel proposing that a Sydney and Outer Metropolitan Area County Council be established for the whole of Metropolitan Sydney? And that this body would have the following core features:
• Strategic regional and Subregional planning
• Regional advocacy, inter-government relations and promoting collaboration with State and Federal agencies
• Management of or technical support of water utilities
• Road network planning and major projects
• Waste and environmental management
• Regional economic development
• Library services
• ‘high level’ corporate service.
MACROC would not support the concept of one county council for Sydney and the Outer Metropolitan region. It would be more appropriate to follow the current alignment of regional organisations of councils with perhaps some adjustment to bring them into line with Subregional boundaries.
The Panel states that the factors defining county councils are:
• Regional or Subregional community of interest reflected in existing arrangements
• Strong socio-economic links
• Alignment where possible with State and Federal functions and agencies
Surely these are the same factors that define regional organisations of councils.
MACROC also seeks clarification on the following comments on page 46 of the discussion paper under the heading Subregional arrangements:
“If little or no restructuring takes place then county councils should be established to undertake a wide range of functions for their members…”
“If restructuring takes place as preferred by the Panel, Subregional groupings of councils should be set up for joint strategic planning and implementation with State agencies of proposed Delivery Plans under the Metropolitan Strategy, as well as Regional Action Plans under the State Plan.”.
Are these Subregional groupings really just ROCs under another name?
And finally the Panel gives no indication in the discussion paper of the costs of establishing these new county councils or on ongoing costs. Transitioning from current models to the Panel preferred new models will require contractual changes with existing partners/funders, changes with current and future host councils and existing staff. So the questions that need to be addressed are: How much will the new models cost to establish and to run and how will this be funded? And once established where will the model derive income?
Notwithstanding the comments above on the continued role of regional organisations of councils, MACROC is pleased to support the NSW Independent Local Government Review Panel in the process of developing a strategic response to the challenges facing local government and supports many of the key proposal and options presented in the current discussion paper, particularly those that relate to improving the fiscal and financial position of Local Government.
Sustainability and Finance
MACROC supports the development of a standard set of benchmarks for local government; the requirement for councils to appoint a qualified Chief Financial Officer (however this may be difficult in smaller regional and remote councils; and strengthening the guidelines for councils’ 4 year delivery plans (once again as this is labour intensive it will impact on smaller councils).
MACROC supports an improved rating system and streamline rate-pegging to enable councils to generate essential additional revenue and the progressive re-distribution of grant funding to provide greater assistance to rural-remote councils with limited rating potential. However care should be taken in the transition phase that the financial position of councils is not damaged by having their FAG reduced as a result.
MACROC supports the establishment of a State-wide Local Government Finance Advisory Agency to bring down interest costs and assist councils to make better use of borrowings.
MACROC supports the maintenance of the Local Infrastructure Renewal Scheme for at least 5 years, with a focus on councils facing the most severe problems and the creation of a Strategic Projects Fund for roads and bridges to help reduce the infrastructure backlog (would this be newly identified money or existing money rebadged).
Productivity and Improvement
MACROC supports the development of a consistent data collection and performance measurement system for NSW councils, and strengthening of internal and performance audit processes and the commissioning of a review by IPART of the regulatory and compliance burden on NSW local government.
MACROC supports increased professional development opportunities for councilors.
MACROC supports strengthening the authority and responsibilities of mayors, however is not convinced that a popularly elected mayor would achieve better results for the community.
Taking steps to improve Council-Mayor-General Manager relations is supported in principle and MACROC understands that there will be a report in the near future of a joint working party on this issue.
MACROC supports the reduction of the number of councils in the Sydney Basin however does not support forced amalgamations. The introduction of a package of incentives for voluntary mergers that offers a higher level of support to ‘early movers’ is also supported.
MACROC supports the appointment of a Local Government Development Board for a maximum period of 4 years with a brief to drive and support a concerted program of reform as long as this on the basis of voluntary reform and the Board offers incentives to amalgamate.
MACROC supports the need to build on the new State-Local Government agreement to secure increased collaboration and joint planning between councils and State agencies. A review needs to be undertaken to identify more effective service delivery solutions and more work needs to be done to rectify the current disconnect between local government community strategic plans and State Government planning.
MACROC supports the strengthening of recognition of elected local government in the NSW Constitution and a shift in focus of Local Government NSW and the Division of Local Government on sector improvement.
MACROC would once again like to commend the Panel on the thoroughness of this report and is pleased to continue to support the NSW Independent Local Government Review Panel in the process of developing a strategic response to the challenges facing Local Government. MACROC believes that regional organisations of councils should be the preferred model for regional governance. ROCs have the defining factors of the new county councils and are already undertaking many of functions identified by the Panel as the core features of county councils. ROCs have established strong reputations and strategic alliances. There may be some deficiencies within individual ROCs and lack of consistency between ROCs, but that does not mean the model should be abandoned. MACROC believes that ROCs can be strengthened so that they can better assist local government to provide greater benefits to the community.
28 June 2013
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