Ian MacRae, President LGPA
The following submission from the Local Government Planners Association (LGPA) provides some observations about the Report of the Independent Panel on the Metropolitan Local Government Review. It is written in the belief that the Government will probably act as it sees fit whatever the nature of submissions it receives.
It is not the intention of this submission to be necessarily defensive or opposed to change. However, the message in the submission is that what has been presented is no argument for radical change, the Panel clearly does not understand the implications of some of its recommendations and the community would suffer considerable costs should they be put in place. As local government planners we see that good planning decisions and sensible plans are not determined by the size of a local government.
There are really arguments on both sides and the Minister for Local Government would be best advised to forego sweeping generalisations and use his current powers to seek changes to certain local governments when they clearly deserve it. He should not be guided by some presumed magic number to work towards or by the belief that local government needs to be taught a lesson for no very rational reason.
Key drivers affecting the future of Perth
In response to two of the terms of reference, the Panel’s first chapters address the factors anticipated to impact over the next 50 years. Nearly all the strategic issues that are held up as driving the need for change are ones that have traditionally been within the preserve of State government. Affordable housing, population and economic growth, infrastructure challenges, urban congestion, water resources and climate change cannot be said to be matters that will be progressed by different local government arrangements unless functions between the tiers of government radically change.
Throughout the report there is a lack of recognition of the fact that Perth has had for over 50 years and continues to have the best regional planning system in Australia. There appears to be a lack of understanding that the regional planning decision making authority and ability to raise revenue and expend considerable funds on the achievement of planning objectives is second to none. There is no logic in advocating more effective local government in the pursuit of functions that are by their nature regional and already properly apportioned to State authorities.
The listed economic issues (globalisation, education, health, transport, retail trade), social issues (ageing, household structure, housing, public infrastructure such as ports and airports and new technology), and environmental issues (such as the coast, water management, river systems and waste management) are essentially ones that should be focusing the mind of the State government. These challenges do not really lie at the door of local government unless it is seriously contended that State government be disbanded. As noted (p46), State Government expenditures for the Perth region are estimated to be around ten times those of metropolitan local governments!
If there is a real appetite to seriously address all these issues more proactively and effectively, better use should be made of the coordinating possibilities of the existing regional planning structures, because unless local government is restructured to such an extent that it in essence becomes a regional government, then the listed issues will remain beyond the scope and function of local government.
Accordingly the substance of Section 3, while not disputed for its listing of important issues for the future, is largely irrelevant as a basis for local government restructuring. It is noted that the Panel probably came to the same conclusion because no recommendations stem from Section 3. The Government in establishing the terms of reference was probably mistakenly of the view that the conclusions would lead to a justification of local government restructuring – they do not.
Roles and Relationships
Section 4 flows on from Section 3 in describing “roles and relationships”. Interesting anomalies are identified such as the Cambridge Endowment Lands Act, Agreement acts, and LandCorp’s unrateable status. The cost-shifting of functions to local government is discussed and it is recognised that this has been with little corresponding increase in financial arrangements. Some functions are better suited to regional approaches (p.72)(transport, bushfire management, natural resource management, regional planning and waste management). But this is not an argument for local government restructuring.
The Panel claims that larger local governments would have the capacity to do more and provide a greater range of services to the community. Undoubtedly this is the case, although it is rather obvious, as is their conclusion that State and Commonwealth governments could more readily (and “more meaningfully”) engage with a lesser number of larger local governments.
The interesting recommendations in Section 4 include a review of state and local government functions (the review has identified anomalies at the state level too), the “reinstatement” of local government planning approval powers (this means that DAPs – a proven expensive administrative nightmare for the state – should be magnanimously returned to local government if it accepts reform), and the establishment of a metropolitan-wide waste authority (as opposed to the current sub-regional arrangements).
Local Government Structures
Section 5 is the meat of the report and contains the arguments for the particular boundary arrangements recommended in response to two specific terms of reference.
In arriving at conclusions regarding local government boundaries little discussion is entered into regarding the practical issues associated with implementation. In-depth analysis of the potential costs and savings associated with boundary reform – which are acknowledged to be substantial (p. 96) – are considered to be less important than delivering the best outcomes to the community. The only discussion on the cost of implementation would appear to relate to redundancies and salaries of CEOs (p. 88).
Some useful observations are made (p. 91) on the importance of commercial and industrial ratepayers in achieving viability (Belmont and Armadale being singled out to illustrate the point) but this isn’t followed through as being a significant determinant of the recommended structure. Certainly the Panel has not been swayed by the argument that smaller councils are generally preferred by the community – believing that the opposite can be argued and satisfaction is based on complex factors including physical environment and safety (p. 94).
The report provides a reasonable airing of the arguments for and against amalgamations (p. 97-104). The Panel identifies the positions taken by individual councils – some of which were inconsistent between initial and later submissions (Rockingham and Melville) – and the predatory endeavours of some councils are laid bare possibly as a means of undermining the sector as a whole. With a lack of clear direction given the Panel from assessing the submissions, it has plumped for the conclusions reached by the 2006 Local Government Advisory Board report which came down strongly on the side of an “urgent need for structure reform of local government in WA” (p. 103) on the grounds that it would enable sustainability – particularly by amalgamating the western suburbs.
One difficult issue ignored by the Panel was the matter of the relatively recent split of the City of Perth. It is inconvenient to be reminded that 20 years ago a cogent argument was presented that the size of the City of Perth was such that it inhibited the capital city of WesternAustralia being able to operate effectively while being side-tracked by an excessive focus on its suburban areas where most of its ratepayers resided. To now revert to this situation presumably presents a conundrum that it’s best to be silent on. The section on the size of the City of Perth (p. 129) does not discuss the matter and it is only mentioned briefly on page 136 stating that Perth is now a different place to that of the past.
Consideration is given to size options, going over the Panel’s earlier three options (10-12, 5-6 and one) and specifically mentioning the 15-20 WALGA option which (p.106) is dismissed due to no comprehensive case for the option being provided and the Panel claims that such an approach would not be strategic enough to be worth the effort.
In moving to a 12 council option the Panel is persuaded that the activity centres provide a logical basis for local government entities. It is presumed that by “activity centre” the Panel actually means “strategic metropolitan centres” otherwise the attachment to 12 centres loses meaning (Directions 2031 identifies 109 Activity Centres in the Perth Region). While no more argument is presented in favour of this option than those options dismissed, there is a simplistic and peculiar contention (p. 106) that if each local government has an activity centre it won’t be tempted to create one and where they have more than one they won’t be able to focus on just one. The Panel supports this option noting that it was also supported by most local governments (Bayswater, Fremantle, Joondalup, Rockingham, Stirling and Swan) who currently have an activity centre. The Panel implies that Armadale, Canning, Joondalup and Perth did not submit on this basis, although, in the case of this City, recognition of the need to build around the Strategic Regional Centre was central to the submission.
In Section 5.3.3 the Panel discusses metropolitan governance and draws the conclusion that there is merit in the metropolitan area having an overarching strategic body at the metropolitan level, particularly to advocate the funding of infrastructure and services over and above local government. While there is a digression into models developed for London, Vancouver, Portland and SE Queensland, there is no mention of the current regional planning arrangements in Perth through the WAPC. Possibly familiarity breeds contempt, alternatively the Panel has made itself insufficiently familiar with the fact that as an implementer of regional infrastructure none of the models cited come close to that already operating in Perth. The funding mechanism provided via the Metropolitan Region Improvement Tax and the achievements of a network of regional open space (having purchased 26,000 hectares) and transport infrastructure deserve some recognition.
Section 5.4 ranges over a broad series of matters that would benefit from particular changes to local government structure. Less local governments would mean less town planning schemes, less policy variations, a more even spread of resources, less duplication, greater economies of scale, and simpler liaison with state government agencies and thereby an argument is presented for a lesser number of local governments. The benefits of size are somewhat countered by the greater ease of community engagement with smaller councils – although the Panel is not swayed by this preferring the introduction of different engagement models.
Section 5.5 builds on the recommendation that 12 local governments be based on the ten Strategic metropolitan and two secondary centres from Directions 2031 with the precise boundaries being based either on amalgamations or splitting existing areas (the Panel prefers the latter). A description of each of the 12 is provided (with an omission to discuss the southern portion of SJ which is indicated as dropping out of the Region, but this is not explained) and the risk of dissociation between council and public be addressed by the recommendation (p. 143) that the newly created local governments support best practice community engagement, including place management, as a priority.
Models of Governance
The section on Improved Models of Governance (Section 6) concludes that there should be compulsory voting for somewhat illusive reasons, that councillors have a three term limit, that mayors serve no longer than the President of the United States, that mayors be directly elected and councillors be trained. These matters are less central to the main matters in hand and possibly do not even fit within the terms of reference.
In Section 7, the Panel admits that “a detailed implementation plan does not form part of this report” (p. 159). Experience of the practical difficulties of achieving amalgamation between two local governments (Albany, Geraldton etc), and of splitting a single local government (Perth into Vincent, Cambridge and Victoria Park) is available and this demonstrates the complexity and expense of such decisions. To rearrange boundaries affecting 28 local governments simultaneously (assuming Joondalup and Wanneroo are unaffected) is likely to be an enormous enterprise. The human resource issues alone are enough to discourage the endeavour.
Perhaps it would have been more practical for the Panel to have suggested a staged approach to implementation – for instance to address the Western Suburbs first.
The predicted future big issues don’t necessarily support the restructure argument, the analysis of effective government functions raise more questions for State than local government and the specific analysis of the merits of larger councils is unconvincing leading to a reliance on the conclusions of a 2006 LGAB report to justify change and the Activity Centres of Directions 2031 to indicate the geographic nature of the change. The Panel’s digression into regional governance structures is not central to its terms of reference and inexcusably ignores the potential of the current arrangements. The costs of implementation are glossed over – yet the Government would be most ill-advised if it adopted the key recommendations without a clear idea of costs and who would meet them. The LGPA cannot support wholesale changes based upon the arguments put forward by the Panel and respectfully suggests more modest incremental changes in pursuit of good governance.