Local govt risks being relegated to ‘line manager’

Local government needs to reassert its role in shaping cities or risk being relegated to a “line manager” for state and federal agendas, new research suggests.

Professor Andrew Butt

AHURI’s recently released paper Local government co-ordination: metropolitan governance in twenty-first century Australia explores the way in which local government is central to the liveability, development and functioning of Australia’s metropolitan regions.

But the institute says its review finds the sector is largely removed from having any real influence on issues that have scope to create change in Australia’s cities.

Recent planning and infrastructure reforms indicate a trend towards further centralisation at the state and Territory level, it says.

A price-taker in someone else’s agenda

Discussing the research during an online forum on Wednesday, lead author Professor Andrew Butt from RMIT University said local government has little say in agenda and goal setting around cities, but is frequently left to clean up the mess after poor planning.

We’ve got a lot of urban expansion going on in many parts of Australian cities that are being led by state government agendas, being led by national agendas with local government as a responder.

Professor Andrew Butt

“We’ve got a lot of urban expansion going on in many parts of Australian cities that are being led by state government agendas, being led by national agendas with local government as a responder,” he said.

“Infrastructure deficits, the need for affordable housing, the need to create a community life and the need respond to population growth and housing demand leaves local governments …. as a sort of price-taker in the agenda, rather than being able to set that agenda.”

Professor Butt said, the role of local government in reshaping transport has been scant, and despite transport infrastructure being anpotentially city-shaping investment it’s often driven by private interests, like Melbourne’s West Gate Tunnel.

Even the City Deal concept, which is meant to be an exercise in collaboration between state and local government, is not what it seems, he says.

“When we look at our review of the City Deal … in many respects it appears to have become a mechanism by which funding is distributed rather than a strategic exercise in city shaping”.

Erosion of input

Liz de Chastel, Senior Policy Adviser of the Australian Local Government Association, says local government understands local communities in ways that state and commonwealth frequently don’t.

Liz de Chastel

They also know best about targeted investments, support mechanisms and interventions that will help their communities grow and prosper, she said.

But Ms de Chastel said recent reforms instigated in the name of efficiency, have in reality resulted in further marginalisation of local government.

She highlighted the changes to planning legislation brought in around Australia last year to fast-track assessments and aid COVID recovery .

“These changes were generally supported by local governments, however its fair to say that some of these new streamlined assessment pathways have resulted in reduced input and decision making from local communities,” she said.

Structures like Western Australia’s assessment panels and the Victorian Planning Authority are also taking development decision making away from local government, Professor Butt said.

“There was a collaborative expectation of local government, but arguably they minimise the autonomy or legitimacy of local government,” he said.

Lessons from overseas

AHURI says local governments should be key actors in metropolitan governance and its report looks at ways of strengthening and improving government co-ordination at a local level.

It says Australia might seek inspiration from international examples where local government reform has lead to effective metropolitan governance.

These include the Auckland Regional Council in New Zealand and the greater London Authority or Canada’s Metro Vancouver.

Professor Butt says it’s time for local government to reassert its democratic legitimacy, which has been weakened by centralisation and the dilution of local government powers.

“The literature suggests that there’s democratic deficit has emerged because a lot of the role of elected officials have been stripped back and a lot of the community confidence in elected local government has been stripped back as well,” he said.

“So we aren’t seeing people crying out in the streets for democratic local government as much as we probably should.”

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