Options paper by next month.
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NSW government says slow down. [/caption] After three public hearings, 212 submissions and a parliamentary report the NSW government has announced it is not yet ready to make a decision about how to regulate short-term holiday letting through online booking services like Airbnb and Stayz. Instead, the NSW government will conduct a ‘broad consultation’ with the public and the short-term accommodation industry, including bed and breakfasts and hotels, before publishing an options paper next month. The options paper, which the Departments of Planning and Environment and Fair Trading will also contribute to, will explore land use and planning issues and strata management concerns, including the impact on the lives and safety of existing residents. This morning’s announcement (Thursday) was in response to an October 2016 report by the NSW Parliamentary Legislative Assembly Committee on Environment on the best way to regulate the explosion of short-term accommodation letting and the continued rise of Airbnb in the state. The report recommended the government make it easier for homeowners to rent out a whole or part of their house and for it to adopt a light regulatory touch. This approach included relaxing state planning laws so that local councils could class short-term letting as exempt development, providing it did not have excessive impact on other residents. But the government offered only ‘qualified support’ to the committee’s recommendations, stating they needed further consideration and more public consultation. It has been slow going. After submissions closed in November 2015 there were three public hearings between March and May 2016 followed by the final report on October 19, 2016 and the government’s response six months later. NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts said it was too complicated and divisive an issue to rush. “It’s no surprise that NSW and Sydney are highly sought after destinations for international and domestic visitors, however, we must find a balance between providing options for accommodation and residents being able to go about their daily lives. This will support the best environment for residents and visitors so that it is a great destination,” Mr Roberts said. “The inquiry recommendations make sense, but the regulation of short-term letting needs broader engagement with the industry and the community to establish a model that enables it to continue to flourish and innovate whilst ensuring the amenity and safety of users and the wider community are protected. “It's sensible to take time on a complex issue like this, which is why we are releasing an options paper next month.” The government supported the report’s recommendations around communicating with councils and residents any changes and that councils take the lead on informing landowners about their rights and duties. Also supported was giving owners’ corporations more powers to respond to any negative consequences of short-term lets in their buildings, through amending strata regulations. NSW Better Regulation Minister Matt Kean said the government would concentrate on finding common ground to address the concerns of everyone involved. “We need to find what will work best for the people of NSW, which is why we’re issuing an options paper for discussion with relevant stakeholders,” Mr Kean said. “We don’t want a holiday accommodation market that’s so over-regulated it puts people off coming here but the rights of residents who live near these properties must be considered too. “While short-term holiday letting, if properly managed and respected by all parties, can be a boost to the local economy, the need to protect people’s rights to the quiet enjoyment of their own homes is equally important.” Meanwhile, Airbnb Australia Country Manager Sam McDonagh called the government's response a 'strong, positive step towards ensuring fair and progressive rules and regulation for residents and visitors to NSW'. “We appreciate that these things take time and that it’s important to get the balance right," Mr McDonagh said. "We’re confident that Premier Berejiklian and the NSW government will join the state governments in Tasmania and South Australia, in embracing home sharing, and introduce fair regulations that allow more people in NSW to share their extra space.” Want the latest public sector news delivered straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up the Government News newsletter. [post_title] => NSW government delays Airbnb decision [post_excerpt] => Options paper by next month. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => nsw-government-delays-airbnb-decision [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-04-21 11:16:15 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-04-21 01:16:15 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=26947 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )  => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 26894 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2017-04-12 12:19:26 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-04-12 02:19:26 [post_content] => Trains in NSW will struggle to arrive on time and be blighted by overcrowding unless the capacity of the rail network is ‘increased significantly’ by 2019, says a report by the NSW Auditor-General. The audit of passenger rail services and rail punctuality in Sydney and regional areas, services overseen by Transport for NSW and contracted out to Sydney Trains and NSW Trains, found that the rail agencies were ‘well placed’ to manage the forecasted increase in passengers up to 2019 but would battle to stay on time beyond this date. But Auditor-General Margaret Crawford warned that this needed to be tackled. “Based on forecast patronage increases, the rail agencies will find it hard to maintain punctuality after 2019 unless the capacity of the network to carry trains and people is increased significantly,” Ms Crawford said. “If recent higher than forecast patronage growth continues, the network may struggle to maintain punctuality before 2019.” The NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan predicts there will be a 26 per cent increase in passengers between 2012 and 2031 and that passenger numbers may well overtake this figure. Forecasts have underestimated passenger numbers in the past, particularly in the morning peak. There has been an annual growth of 6.6 per cent since May 2014, twice as much as was predicted by the NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan. More passengers usually mean more delays as trains wait longer at stations for passengers to get on and off. Ms Crawford said Transport or NSW had been making progress but was not close to submitting a costed plan to the government to address these challenges. “If patronage continues to increase at a faster rate than forecast, particularly during the morning peak, the network will struggle to cope before 2019," she said. “There is a significant risk that investments will not be made soon enough to handle future patronage levels. Ideally planning and investment decisions should have been made already.” While the audit found that system-wide punctuality was good overall, it pinpointed poor punctuality in some areas of the network. Problem areas
- Snarl ups around North Sydney affecting afternoon peak services out to Western Sydney and Hornsby via Strathfield
- East Hills express trains in the afternoon peak performed ‘well below target’
- Intercity trains were less punctual than suburban trains with declining punctuality between 2011 and 2014
- Transport for NSW should submit plans to address passenger growth over the next five to ten years to the government as soon as possible
- Sydney Trains and Transport for NSW should: a) oversee and resource all plans to address passenger increases b) adjust strategies for any patronage growth above projections
- Sydney Trains, NSW Trains and Transport for NSW should publish customer delay results by June 2018
- Transport for NSW, Sydney Trains and NSW Trains should agree by December 2017: a) specific performance targets for intercity train, track and signal availability and reliability b) guidelines for train priorities during disruptions and indicators of control centre performance when implementing these guidelines
- Sydney Trains, NSW Trains and Transport for NSW should by June 2018: a) improve the accuracy of measuring passenger numbers and develop a better understanding of growth trends b) address small errors in the adjustment factors used to determine a train’s punctuality c) improve their understanding of the factors impacting on intercity punctuality
- Transport for NSW should, commencing June 2017, explore the potential to use behavioural insights to encourage more passengers to travel outside the height of the morning peak between 8 am and 9 am
Container Transport Alliance Australia (CTAA), representing companies responsible for the majority of container transport to and from the Port of Melbourne, has called on the Andrews’ Victorian Labor Government to help container transport operators get a ‘fair go’ in the toll pricing to use the West Gate Tunnel. CTAA was responding to the announcements by the Victorian Premier that a consortium headlined by John Holland and CPB Contractors has been selected to build the West Gate Tunnel Project (formally known as the Western Distributor Project) to commence in early 2018, and that once completed, there would be 24/7 ‘bans’ on trucks on roads in the inner west of Melbourne. CTAA director Neil Chambers said: “Not surprisingly, container transport operators in the inner and outer Western industrial suburbs undertake numerous truck trips to and from the Port of Melbourne during the day, at night and on weekends, to service vital container trade volumes through the biggest container port in Australia.” “The original government business case called for Transurban to consider a reduced toll price for transport operators undertaking these shuttle operations, as well as suitable trip caps, and the favourable treatment of Higher Productivity Freight Vehicles.” Read more here. This story first appeared in Transport and Logistics News. [post_title] => Will the West Gate Tunnel ‘ban trucks’? [post_excerpt] => 24/7 'ban' on trucks in inner western Melbourne. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => will-west-gate-tunnel-ban-trucks [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-04-06 15:28:21 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-04-06 05:28:21 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=26841 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )  => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 26709 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2017-03-31 11:06:38 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-03-31 00:06:38 [post_content] => Manchester city centre, UK. Three Australian cities will replicate a UK initiative designed to deliver economic growth, affordable housing and new infrastructure while devolve decisions away from federal government towards state and local government. City Deals is a UK initiative which began in 2012 with eight deals for cities outside London, including Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool and Leeds and covering a population of 12.7 million. They have now been introduced across 38 UK city-regions. Under City Deals, state government and local councils decide what needs to be done to lift economic growth locally and they set targets in areas such as jobs, affordable housing and emissions reduction. The deals also include the regional areas around cities. The scheme emphasises building infrastructure and aims to deliver long-term benefits, such as higher land values, bigger tax receipts, more jobs and increased productivity. In the UK, most contracts are for ten years and funding often comes from all three levels of government. Local councils’ contributions tend to be lower than that from the other tiers of government, around 10 to 20 per cent, and often includes contributions in kind, such as land transfers and council officers’ time. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is known to be a fan of City Deals for Australia and he has committed to early deals for Townsville, Launceston and Western Sydney. The process for future deals will be announced later. The Launceston City Deal, signed in September last year, promises to support education, employment and investment and this will include a new university campus in the city centre; revitalising the historic CBD and a new National Institute for Forest Products Innovation Hub. Under the Launceston deal, $140 million comes from the federal government and $60 million from the Tasmanian government. The Western Sydney City Deal, which includes the local government areas of the Blue Mountains, Camden, Campbelltown, Fairfield, Hawkesbury, Liverpool, Penrith and Wollondilly, seems to have a pretty broad remit. It will focus on public transport, employment and investment (particularly youth and indigenous employment); more affordable housing by boosting supply and diversity; biodiversity and conservation and arts and culture. There is no mention of who is paying what under the Western Sydney deal, which is up on the Department of Premier and Cabinet’s website. To find out more about the UK experience and what it could mean for Australia, Government News caught up with Scottish urban economist and affordable housing specialist Professor Duncan MacLennan, who has been involved with the Glasgow City Deal. What City Deals can do But first, let’s start off with what City Deals could do for Australia. Prof MacLennan explains that cities are ‘core areas driving national productivity’ and he says City Deals have been valuable because they have placed infrastructure at the centre of city thinking and coherent investment strategies. While cities drive growth, the income and tax receipts from this goes mainly to state or federate government - there is a disproportionate flow back - while cities are stuck with the problems stemming from growth, like congestion, pollution and a shortage of affordable housing. Indeed, Prof MacLennan says there is some evidence to suggest that some skilled workers are fleeing cities, fed up with long commutes and expensive housing. City Deals attempt to reverse this situation by channelling some of the money back into city-regional areas. Prof MacLennan says: “In the absence of changing the fiscal system, it’s a reasonably appropriate mechanism for getting money where it needs to be. “The main benefit to City Deals is the new focus on infrastructure [that has] raised local capacity to deal with it and more coherent investment strategies.” What they the deals don’t do, he says, is lead to a better system of sub-national government because they are uneven in their impact. In the UK, the deals are not open to everyone and they have not been rolled out evenly. Since City Deals began, Prof MacLennan says that metropolitan authorities have strengthened their capacity to do big infrastructure planning and they have got much better at making the economic case for infrastructure investment. “Big City Deals now know much more about infrastructure planning and how to do it well than central government,” he says. “There is work being done that wasn’t being done three or four years’ ago.” This point was picked up in the UK National Audit Office’s (NAO) report on the first wave of eight City Deals, calling them a ‘catalyst to manage devolved funding and responsibilities’. The report also commended the deals for cutting through funding complexities and giving cities direct access to central government decision makers, which in turn helped them secure funding and support from other government departments. “This helped cities agree deals aligned to their ambitions and local priorities,” said the NAO’s report. But the process is not without its problems. Resources, as ever, have not been there to help cities build their capacity locally. Local government was expected to pool its resources and given no funding to support additional management capacity. This can lead to skills shortages, for example in forecasting and modelling. “It is not clear, however, whether this approach is sustainable in the context of wider reductions in the government’s funding for local authorities. Departments’’ resource constraints have impacted on the government’s capacity to make bespoke, wide-ranging deals with more places,” The NAO noted. Other criticisms of the UK model have included the inherent difficulty of uneven power relations between the three levels of government; the centralised control exerted when deals are negotiated; the lack of transparency around the criteria for cities to be selected for a new; vagueness around the aims, monitoring and evaluation of some City Deals and extra pressure on the already highly constrained budgets of local councils. Another downside of the City Deals, says Prof MacLennan, is raising expectations. “People think this is going to solve all their problems and don’t pay attention to other programs that are reducing and changing.” It can also open up gaps between the haves and the have nots: those areas which have City Deals and those that do not. Prof MacLennan says: “The differences may become so great that the government may have to come in and think about what it does for lagging cities.” But the neediest areas are often those where councils that may not have the organisation or the skilled workforce to make their case for a City Deal. Recommendations for Australian City Deals Good economic modelling is important from the get go, says Prof MacLennan, because it helps predict how infrastructure investment decisions affect the behaviour of individual households and businesses over several years. This can involve leveraging expertise from the university sector. For example, northern English City Deals for cities like Greater Manchester and Newcastle saw local government teaming up with universities for economic modelling and analysis. But Prof MacLennan says Sydney does not appear to have any economic metropolitan modelling ready to use. “You need to pay more attention to what you need to know before you start,” he says. “Otherwise you rely on consultants’ reports that are rarely ever in the public domain and never peer reviewed so that nobody knows what’s in them other than the government.” Once projects are up and running, it is essential to monitor their progress against targets and evaluate them effectively, although it is not always easy to know what would have happened were a City Deal not in place. “What matters is the monitoring and the learning from good monitoring,” he says. Some benefits are fiendishly tricky to quantify. For example, gauging economic gains from sustainability initiatives is difficult when there is no carbon price in Australia. Milestones are part of funding deals and if they are not met it means the next tranche of cash could be held back. The UK now has its own dedicated evaluation panel for City Deals. Putting in enough capital initially is important. Prof MacLennan says the volume of capital going into growing cities like Edinburgh, London and Manchester is not currently enough to resolve the issues these cities face. Exploring innovative methods of finance or making use of old ones could prove useful for Australian City Deals. The Scottish city of Aberdeen recently launched its own government bond but Prof MacLennan points out that cities have limited control over their tax affairs (the key to paying back bonds) and says further fiscal reform would be needed. If this is fixed, he anticipates other major cities could follow suit. In general, he says the UK has not come up with very exciting alternative methods of funding under City Deals. On the whole, Australia is in a good position to implement City Deals and make them work. Prof MacLennan says that the Australian federal government and the states and territories have been much better at making infrastructure decisions than the UK. “I think there is a track record here off trying to think coherently about infrastructure … but the better City Deals, like Manchester, would have relevance to what happens in metropolitan Sydney.” “The images of Australia aren’t about the bush any more, it’s the cities.” [post_title] => What the UK can teach Australia about City Deals [post_excerpt] => Three Australian cities chosen for early deal. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => 26709 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-03-31 11:58:49 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-03-31 00:58:49 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=26709 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )  => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 26702 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2017-03-29 14:17:54 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-03-29 03:17:54 [post_content] => Time is running out for opponents of the land titles lease sell-off. As the minutes tick down on the deadline for private sector bids to run the NSW land titles registry opposition to the sale is intensifying. The Berejiklian Government’s plans to flog the only profitable part of the Land and Property Information (LPI) agency have met with widespread anger from surveyors, unions, property developers, real estate agents, community groups and lawyers, who argue that it will debase the quality of the service and make it more expensive for ordinary people, as well causing skilled LPI staff to run for the door. Land titles currently makes a net profit of about $130 million a year. The government will rake in $2 billion by giving the private sector a 35-year lease to operate the registry but Labor has argued this dwarfs the revenue forfeited over the same period. The windfall is earmarked to rebuild Parramatta Stadium and for renovating ANZ Stadium. Despite the majority of people being blissfully unaware of the system until they need it, land titles underpins billions of dollars spent in the NSW economy and a $1.2 trillion real estate market. Land titles define legal ownership and boundaries of land parcels and they are integral to buying and selling property, as well as taking out and paying off mortgages, leasing and inheriting property. A public rally protesting against the sell-off on Tuesday in Sydney’s CBD was followed by a last ditch attempt by Labor to introduce a private member’s bill into NSW Parliament to repeal the previous legislation, which allowed the lease. NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley said he hoped to shut down the privatisation before bidders had to finalise their bids with the government, which he said was tomorrow (Thursday). Mr Foley warned that allowing the deal to go ahead could throw the system into jeopardy and possibly hand control and access to NSW property records to an overseas-based consortia. He said it would push up conveyancing and land title fees, force home owners to take out title insurance and move 400 jobs offshore. Labor maintains that the sell-off will forfeit the $4 billion revenue which would be generated over 35 years that could instead be channeled towards essential services. “The only people that want this sale to go ahead are the Premier, the Treasurer and a handful of bankers and lawyers who stand to receive a fat pay cheque once the sale goes through,” Mr Foley said. “Among the bidders are consortia that are based offshore, which means they can avoid paying tax, make a buck and can shrug off their responsibility to the people of this state.” But NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet appear to be pushing on. They have said the new private provider would invest in new technology and faster processing times could be expected, improving the service for consumers and for industry. Moving to reassure Australians, Mr Perrottet said the data would remained owned by the government and not be stored offshore. Ms Berejiklian has said the state would continue to guarantee any title and compensate any claims through the Torrens Assurance Fund. But a gaff over GST on LPI fees has proved a headache for Mr Perrottet. GST is currently not payable on these fees but this will change if the service is privatised. To protect consumers from price hikes, Mr Perrottet has instructed potential bidders to take 10 per cent off the fees, whereas fees had previously been capped at the CPI. Shadow Finance, Services and Property Minister Clayton Barr has argued that this is an oversight and slashes the land titles registry’s value from between $200 million to $250 million to potential buyers, yielding less for the taxpayer than was originally forecast. Greens MP Justin Field said the government should abandon the sale of the ‘world-class land titling service’. "The more we find out about the sale of this monopoly and essential service, the more opposition grows,” Mr Field said. “The community is right to be concerned about increasing risk of fraud, misuse of personal data and increasing costs of property purchases as a result of the privatisation. "The NSW Governments should listen to the experts, LPI staff and the community and stop the sell-off of land titles," he said. Mr Field has launched a community petition to stop the privatisation here. Opponents to the sell-off include the Law Society of NSW, Institute of Surveyors NSW, the Concerned Titles Group, LPI Staff Union, the Public Service Association of NSW and the Real Estate Institute of NSW. [post_title] => The last stand: Land titles sale [post_excerpt] => Time running out for opponents of sale. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => 26702 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-03-31 11:40:49 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-03-31 00:40:49 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=26702 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )  => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 26647 [post_author] => 670 [post_date] => 2017-03-24 11:54:52 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-03-24 00:54:52 [post_content] => Next week's Smart Conference will address the impact of a infrastructure projects, such as the light rail expansion, on transport and logistics. With Sydney CBD undergoing a phenomenal level of transformation, there is a significant number of public and private sector infrastructure projects being undertaken including the closure of George Street, the city’s traditional thoroughfare. Sydney CBD is a $70bn economy and in the global spotlight. While changes occur, the city needs to continue with business as usual. 630,000 people work in Sydney CBD and rely on 35,000 commercial vehicle movements per day to support their needs. In addition, while the transformation is occurring, there is a need to accommodate high levels of construction traffic. While commercial vehicles play a major role to keep the CBD supplied, they are only one part of the ecosystem. Freight operators need to adapt to the new environment, and with the ongoing level of change, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this is long-term change. This presentation will describe how Transport for NSW is encouraging this change. Transport for NSW is undertaking a generational level of transformation that is impacting the way we work and live. High on the priority list of things to be addressed in NSW and other states are Urban Congestion and National Connectivity. The infrastructure being delivered will benefit both passenger and freight movement. Marg Prendergast, CBD Coordinator General @TransportforNSW will open Smart Conference on Wednesday 29 March. Read more here. This story first appeared in Transport and Logistics News. [post_title] => Transport challenges take centre stage at Smart Conference [post_excerpt] => Impact of new infrastructure projects. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => transport-challenges-take-centre-stage-smart-conference [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-03-24 13:43:31 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-03-24 02:43:31 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=26647 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )  => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 26334 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2017-02-24 17:21:52 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-02-24 06:21:52 [post_content] => The Corkman Irish pub after demolition. Pic: Jenny Zhou, Melbourne Law School student. Two shonky developers and their company faced 16 charges today (Friday) and up to $2 million in fines for demolishing a landmark, heritage Irish pub in Melbourne. Melbourne City Council and the state’s building authority Victorian Building Authority (VBA), laid 16 charges in Melbourne Magistrates Court against the pair and their company for illegally demolishing the 159-year-old Corkman Irish pub in Carlton during October last year. The council and the VBA spent three months investigating the illegal knock down, which was in a heritage overlay area, before laying charges against cowboy developers Stefce Kutlesovski and Raman Shaqiri and their company that owned the land, 160 Leicester Pty Ltd. The two men, who bought the pub in 2015 for $4.76 million, were charged with demolishing the Leicester Street building without a permit; refusing to obey a stop work order; not giving the council 48 hours written notice of the demolition and doing the work outside permissible hours. Mr Kutlesovski was also charged with being an unregistered demolisher. Meanwhile, 160 Leicester Pty Ltd, was charged with allowing the demolition without a permit; failing to observe a stop building work order, contravening planning legislation, carrying out demolition work outside permitted hours and not giving the council 48 hours’ notice of demolition. The maximum penalty for each charge ranges from $3,109 to $388,650 so the two men and their company could owe up to $2 million. Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said he hoped the charges against the developers would lead to the pub being rebuilt. He told a media conference this afternoon: “These are very serious charges carrying very serious fines”. “Everything from demolishing a building, to being without a permit, to failing to observe a stop work order, and everything in between. “It’s not that we want to go into court to punish people as a consequence of what they have done, what we’d really like to see is The Corkman reinstated and that is possible.” Waste from the site, including dangerous asbestos, was later found dumped on a site the two man own in Cairnlea. They were understood to be planning a 12-storey apartment block on the flattened site. [post_title] => They came in with a wrecking ball: Council lays charges over demolition of Melbourne Irish pub [post_excerpt] => Fines could hit $2 million. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => came-wrecking-ball-council-lays-charges-demolition-melbourne-irish-pub [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-02-27 10:44:33 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-02-26 23:44:33 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=26334 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )  => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 26265 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2017-02-17 10:19:05 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-02-16 23:19:05 [post_content] => Council mergers: A tale of two Premiers NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s decision on Tuesday to dump six regional council mergers and push ahead with Sydney metropolitan mergers concludes another chapter in what has been a terribly managed process. Forcibly merging local councils was never going to be easy but former NSW Premier Mike Baird and Local Government Minister Paul Toole set in motion a sequence of events that further tarnished the public’s view of politicians, irritated councils and angered councillors, all while swallowing a huge amount of time, effort and money. The words dog’s and breakfast spring to mind. “It’s a well-earned epithet in this case,” says Professor Graham Sansom, who led the Independent Local Government Review Panel’s (ILGRP) inquiry into NSW local government reform in 2013. “I think you can say with some fairness that pretty much everything they could get wrong they did get wrong,” says Prof Sansom. “The merger process has unquestionably been a disaster.” Council mergers are not inherently right or wrong – this is the fifth round of council mergers in NSW since the 1970s - but the way the government set about selling them to the public and its dealings with councils was chaotic, inconsistent and disrespectful. Devious even. In the meantime, other important local government reforms – like reviewing the rates system; encouraging better council co-operation around strategic planning and service delivery; and updating the Local Government Act were pushed into the background as mergers sparked all-out war. It seemed mergers were the only game in town. Articulating the merger message Mike Baird’s success in pushing through the poles and wires sell-off to fund that state’s new infrastructure was partly because he went into the 2015 state election saying he was going to do it and he outlined the benefits of doing so for ordinary Australians. Contrast this with the flimflammery surrounding council mergers: another extremely emotive policy area. The government downplayed the subject of council mergers before the 2015 State election, vaguely indicating it would proceed with voluntary mergers and saying that it might push others. It didn’t help that some government MPs, including Mr Toole, had signed petitions and spoken publicly against forced amalgamations in the recent past. Prof Sansom says the government should have been upfront and honest about what it wanted to do and clearly set out the benefits and objectives of wider local government reform. But the government’s narrow focus, in public at least, was on the savings it said mergers would deliver - $2 billion over 20 years – opening it up to furious disagreement from academics like University of New England’s Professor Brian Dollery at the Centre for Local Government. “By just carrying on constantly about saving a few million here and a few million there I think the government shot itself in the foot because cash savings are the hardest benefit to prove. The financial evidence base was weak,” Prof Sansom says. “And you don’t throw everything into that much turmoil for just one or two per cent savings on total government expenditure.” Instead, other community benefits should have been stressed, such as better quality services, improved metropolitan planning, more opportunities for regional development, stronger local governance, ‘tangible things that people care about’ says Sansom. The government could have spoken about giving councils more scope and more political clout at state and federal level, rather than bypassing them with new agencies like Urban Growth and the Greater Sydney Commission. “The state government is doing things that local government ought to be doing,” he says. Roberta Ryan, Professor and Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Governance and the Centre for Local Government at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), agrees that the NSW government got hung up on the possible cost savings of mergers, without properly articulating the advantages of broader local government reforms. “It is important that other potential reforms are explored and progressed at the same time - amalgamation is only one tool - and the NSW Inquiry outlined 60 plus other recommendations, some of which are being progress as well, so it is useful not to have the argument just focus on this one aspect,” Prof Ryan says. She says the emphasis on savings alone did not help the government’s case. “The evidence is that rates rise to the higher value and services levels also rise from the lower level to the higher level following amalgamation - so this further reduces the potential for cost savings,” says Prof Ryan. “There may well be long-run efficiencies and higher capacity for local government in the long run which can be beneficial - so the evidence of cost savings needs to be considered as part of short term and longer term arguments.” Prof Ryan says people are ‘generally 50:50’ about mergers but their perspectives can shift. People in regional and rural areas are more concerned about the negative impact of mergers, she says. 2015-2016 UTS research, Why Local Government Matters, showed resistance to mergers dropped markedly when the public interest benefits of mergers were spelt out. Providing the research to back it up and showing evidence of good process was also critical. “In the metro areas - the government has a good story to tell - it needs to get out and run the arguments - locality by locality - giving people good processes - access to evidence of the potential benefits - and explain their rationale for undertaking these reforms,” she says. Producing the evidence and sharing it was also necessary when selling mergers to the public. “This evidence then becomes part of the public debate that keeps everyone informed and prevents the exchange of ignorance on both sides - the NSW government has invested substantially in gathering this evidence - but it would benefit from communicating it more to the affected communities.” Baird et al got themselves in a pickle because the evidence for cost saving was weak and they’d made mergers all about saving money. The NSW Government was not overly forthcoming about supplying the evidence either. The KPMG report, that it says backs up its merger case, is yet to be released in its entirety. The government’s over-reliance on savings to make its case also led to jarring inconsistencies during the Fit for the Future process when some councils that were strong financially were forced to merge, while other strugglers were left to stand alone. It left the government open to charges of political opportunism and deepened public cynicism with the process. Prof Sansom says: “You’ve got to be able to explain what your strategy is and why you’re doing it and you’ve got to be consistent from one place to another. If you treat areas for no good reason differently people lose faith,” he says. Listening to ratepayers, allaying fears The government failed to listen to residents’ concerns or to come up with a plan to do anything about them, as well as not communicating a consistent merger message. The UTS survey found people were most worried about loss of local representation from creating larger councils. This came up repeatedly during merger debates but the NSW government ignored it. Instead it held hasty public hearings, sacked councillors, appointed administrators and delayed elections for newly merged councils until September 2017. Prof Sansom says Mr Baird could have considered other ideas, such as having Community Boards at ward level – as happened after the New Zealand council mergers. Larger, merged councils could also have had more councillors and wards, at least as a transition measure to reassure people that effective local representation would be maintained. “There’s this obsession with reducing the number of councillors. A notion that councillors get in the way and it’s going to be better if you have fewer of them,” he says. “The government leapt into mergers without having had that conversation about how to deal with people’s concerns about local representation.” He says: “It’s basic human psychology. You want to try to think of ways of sweetening the pill.” He argues that keeping councillors on during the transition period and appointing a transition manager would also have been the sensible thing to do, as happened with the 2008 Queensland mergers. “Instead: [the government said] we’re going to issue a proclamation and everybody is going to disappear overnight. To me, it’s hard to conceive of a process more likely to get people’s backs up than that.” An independent body and an independent process The ILGRP recommended in its 2013 Revitalising Local Government report that the merger process should be managed by a reconstituted, independent Boundaries Commission – with no current or former state politicians or councillors sitting on it - to increase the public’s faith in the decision making process. The Commission would also periodically review local government boundaries. In fact, says Prof Ryan, residents should also be involved in setting boundaries around ‘communities of interest’. This can involve looking at key factors like how people access services, schools and shopping; commuting patterns and demographic projections, combined with extensive, independent community consultation. “Otherwise the boundaries are not accepted by the community and there are political and administrative impacts for many years to come,” she says. Prof Sansom says the Panel warned the government about taking matters into its own hands in its report. “I’m more than happy to remind your readers that the ILGRP was very definitely of the view that the current legislation and process embodied in it was not going to do the job.” Another key recommendation by the ILGRP was to reduce the direct involvement of the Local Government Minister in the merger process. Local Government NSW describes the Minister as having “unfettered decision-making power” in its 2015 report, Amalgamations: To Merge or Not to Merge? Professor Sansom agrees that there is too much power vested in one person. “The problem with the Local Government Minister’s role in NSW is that it’s all powerful at both ends of the process. “You can’t get anything considered without the minister’s ticking it in the first place and you can’t get anything implemented without the minister ticking it again and having the right to tinker with the recommendations made by the Boundaries Commission. “It just means that the whole process was politicised from go to woe.” Professor Sansom says he cannot understand why politicians would want to place themselves at the centre of such a fraught process. “If you want to overcome the inevitable angst around amalgamations you have got to convince people from day one that you’re fair dinkum about it. “Being transparent and honest, being serious about exploring all the options, not just picking a few arbitrary mergers here and there. Taking councils and communities into your confidence with evidence.” The government wrote the merger proposals submitted to the Boundaries Commission and the Minister had the final say on whether mergers should or should not proceed. Prof Ryan sums it up: “If it is seen as a process of political opportunism by governments to strengthen their own political fortunes it then becomes difficult.” Checklist for state governments pursuing future council mergers
- Be clear and honest about your intentions from the start
- Back them up with sufficient evidence and share this evidence
- Engage closely with communities around what the benefits are to them
- Listen to and act on residents’ concerns
- Be consistent with your reasoning and apply it evenly and fairly
- Build independence into the process, including drawing boundaries, engaging with communities and assessing proposals
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