Keynote speech - Local Government NSW Inaugural Conference

Good afternoon, everyone.

When 63 municipalities from across New South Wales formed the first local government association just over 150 years ago, they resolved that it would "… watch over and protect the interests, rights and privileges of municipal corporations".

The new association was to "take action in relation to any subject affecting municipal bodies, or municipal legislation, and to promote efficiency in the carrying out of municipal government throughout the colony."

The language is out-of-date, but its vision is vital today.

One hundred and fifty years on, local government in New South Wales faces a time of crisis.

Our challenge is to strengthen the capacity of local government so it can continue delivering for our diverse communities in the 21st century.

If we do not define and secure reform, it will be forced on us by those who do not share our passion for local government and its important role for local communities.

Reform of local government must begin with an understanding of its role and the role of democratically elected local councils.

The dismissive mantra of "roads, rates and rubbish" has never accurately or adequately represented the work of local government.

Rather, the "three Rs" are a limited aspect of our fundamental role which is about creating attractive, prosperous, healthy and safe communities; places where people want to live, work and do business.

Local government is the leading innovator in developing practical and targeted local solutions to problems—pragmatic solutions that routinely have state, national and even international dimensions.

Let me mention just a few award-winning examples:

We heard this morning about the fantastic performance of Mid Western Regional Council and Tumbarumba Shire Council announced as the AR Bluett Memorial Award winners for 2013.

In 1997, the Clarence Valley Council established its floodplain project to improve water quality, restore wetlands and revive fish and bird habitats. It is a leading example of working with local communities and landowners on engineering solutions.

Lismore City Council's award winning "Drive to Conditions" road safety project used a multi-media, multi-pronged campaign to get action for its top ten roads affected by crashes and speeding.

The WBC Alliance is a voluntary alliance of four councils in central west NSW which has used economies of scale to save $4.6M for its residents and ratepayers over the past decade—without amalgamations.

The "Check it Out" program in Cooma-Monaro worked with the community and diverse service providers to provide health screening and wellbeing programs at local shows, small town events and activities such as NAIDOC week and Homelessness Day.

And councils such as Byron, Penrith, Willoughby and the City of Sydney have innovative and practical sustainability projects with local businesses, community and in their own council organisations to cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduce waste and save money.

There isn't time to detail the many other innovative and effective projects and services that Councils across the State are providing for their communities, but this short sample demonstrates local government providing leadership and governance for its local area.

Our role covers a wide range of activity—indeed anything that helps secure the well-being of our local communities.

It means different things in different areas, based on the uniqueness of our local communities, their histories, their needs and their character.

I believe that local government best serves its communities when it is truly "local" in character.

It is then that we most effectively engage with our communities; understand the challenges facing us; lead debate on important issues; develop a vision for the future; and work to deliver on it.

Local Government in NSW needs a reform process based on clear principles that begins with this understanding of the role of local government and its role in local planning.

We need a logical and structured approach to reform that fully engages with Councils and our communities, and includes reform across all three tiers of government, not just local government.

When I became Lord Mayor of Sydney in 2004, I wanted a long-term vision and plan for our city.

We consulted widely and the result was Sustainable Sydney 2030, a plan which has won broad acceptance.

The work involved the whole community and we consciously identified ways to engage with as many of the one million people who are in our local government area each day to live, work, shop, study, holiday or party.

Sustainable Sydney 2030 addressed the full range of economic, social, cultural and environmental issues confronting us. We saw our job as building a sustainable, accessible and prosperous city, with robust, healthy and diverse local communities.

The strategies covered not just those projects where we had direct control, but also issues of concern for our community where we needed to work in partnership or where we had only an advocacy role, and we put forward ideas outside our authority, to provoke innovation, quality design — and action.

Our diverse program includes capital works such as revitalising city laneways, creating and improving parks, providing six new childcare centres and a City cycle network - as well as encouraging greater diversity through supporting small bars, planning for a night-time culture, encouraging creative businesses and start-ups, and supporting our urban villages.

The NSW Government has responded to a number of key projects, committing to light rail through the CBD and recently endorsing a city centre access plan for all forms of transport, drawing on the work we have done to encourage healthy and sustainable transport options for walking, riding and public transport.

This has been achieved within the existing local government framework.

I believe that even more can be achieved with a stronger relationship of collaboration between all levels of government. Local government must be an equal and valued partner of state and federal governments that can help state and federal government deliver their projects.

Without respect and recognition, together with appropriate authority and financial capacity, local councils no matter what their size will always be hampered in getting results.

I know many of you are concerned about the impact of the State Government's plethora of reviews, inquiries and legislative changes.

They include:

  • The Planning White Paper and legislation (A New Planning System for NSW);
  • The Independent Local Government Review Panel (Sansom Review);
  • The Local Government Acts Taskforce;
  • A Draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney;
  • The Local Government Amendment (Early Intervention) Act 2013; and
  • A Parliamentary Inquiry into the 2012 Local Government Elections.

These reviews are being held not even a year since the Local Government Election when we were democratically elected for a four year term and they are being held by a government that has committed to 'no forced amalgamations'.

Many Councillors share my concern that the current reform process could lead to untested, complex and even contradictory proposals that could initiate years of chaos and disruption, with little demonstrated benefit.

In their report, Future Directions for NSW Local Government: Twenty Essential Steps, the Independent Local Government Review Panel has failed to put forward a compelling, evidence-based case for change and failed to consider the risks of change.

They have not provided a business case that demonstrates the significant costs of creating larger amalgamated council areas would be outweighed by the benefits.

Most significantly, the Panel has failed to address the purpose and role of local government.

Local government is not and should not be viewed as just an administrative outpost of the State Government - to simply deliver services delegated to it by the state.

Local Government is the level of government closest to the community and must have the authority and capacity to identify community needs and aspirations; set strategic priorities, and develop effective plans to implement them, and the fundamental role of democratically elected local councils is to provide leadership and governance for their local areas.

The Panel's suggestions for new governance structures risk creating additional layers of bureaucracy and additional tiers of government.

There are alternatives and I would like to put to you some practical directions.

Local government must have the clear authority and responsibility needed to do its job, particularly in the areas of roads, transport, planning and development assessment.

State and federal government must devolve power wherever possible to the local level. This can only be achieved with a new relationship of respect, trust and collaboration.

Local government needs new structures to coordinate regional planning between local, state and federal government.

For Sydney, I believe this requires routine and mandated regional meetings between mayors and senior state representatives, with a duty to develop, monitor and review the implementation of regional strategies.

An improved and sustainable revenue base for local government is also a critical priority.

Efficiency, improved productivity, better budget planning and innovation are vital—but will not by themselves overcome years of rate pegging and cost shifting.

And finally, leadership is critical. Our strength, courage and vision as elected leaders are more vital for securing the future of our communities than any legislative arrangements.

Survey after survey shows that the community is more satisfied with the performance of Local Government than State or Federal Governments.

The huge reaction to the State's draft Planning White Paper proves that people want locally elected Councillors to be ultimately responsible for their local neighbourhoods - not faceless bureaucrats or Government Ministers.

The decisions we make this week must confirm that Local Government NSW is an organisation capable of protecting and advancing democratic local government for the good of all NSW's local communities.

Thank you.