Local government is like clean water – the better it is, the less you notice.
As the closest level of government to the community, local government is tasked with a wide range of services that generally support resident’s wellbeing, quality of life and liveability. This direct approach, in contrast to state and federal levels, maximises the recognised benefits of bottom up systems in empowering communities to determine their own course and take responsibility for their future.
While hot topics such as climate change get caught up in national or State politics, local governments are getting on with the job of addressing the problem by altering planning permissions, installing mitigation measures, increasing urban canopy, and educating their residents about energy usage and urban design. However, as local governments take on more responsibility they place more pressure on their resources and become victims of their own success being consistently relied on to ensure outcomes without always receiving the financial support or recognition to do so.
Local governments responsibility for urban areas through planning measures, provision of transport and community facilities means they are a significant player in determining the future sustainability of Australian communities, but we often don’t give them the recognition they deserve. Many of the services they provide and the funding they seek, falls outside of the various local government acts across the country, meaning local governments operate under several different ministers and departments including planning, health, transport and environment. This diffusion of responsibility waters down clear vertical funding streams to direct community outcomes and provides a challenge in the sheer scale of potential stakeholders and shareholders with whom local governments need to communicate.
This problem is exacerbated by the freeze of financial assistance grants and a funding transfer to competitive state and federal grant programs. These programs rely on local governments to deliver on behalf of state and federal governments and restricts the ability for local councils to take a long-term approach to new initiatives and to adequately plan for maintenance of existing assets. Not only does this create inequities where the biggest councils are better equipped to demonstrate a project’s benefits and therefore attract more funding, but also establishes an expectation for ongoing service delivery at a local level which does not disappear when the funding streams dry up. This cost-shifting means local governments are required to deliver more with less which may result in lower quality services and could impede their ability to deliver core functions into the future.
One solution to this dilemma often put forward is to increase the capacity of local governments through amalgamations. Economies of scale and the benefits of reducing the overall number of administration staff and executives provides a seemingly rational solution to getting more bang for each ratepayer’s buck. However, as demonstrated through the collapse of the local government amalgamation process in Western Australia, this is not what rate payers want because it acts against the very core of why we have local government at all: to know at a microlevel how best to increase the quality of life of their residents, to truly service local needs and to advocate to other levels of government on behalf of their communities.
A successful process for service delivery requires a whole of government approach ensuring that those projects with the most need or highest potential benefit, not those with the most resources, receive funding. To achieve this, we need a shared vision for the expected functions of local government, a sustainable system of funding, trust in the professionalism of the sector and a belief in the proven ability for local governments to deliver to their communities.
We need to step back and carefully consider what it is about local government that we value, to reset our expectations and recognise their quiet and consistent contribution to ensuring our quality of life and wellbeing, and to support them to continue to respond to the needs of each one of their communities in their own unique and diverse ways.
Catriona McNaughton is a Communications Analyst at FPL Advisory.