By Paul Hemsley and Julian Bajkowski
The Local Government and Shires Association of New South Wales (LGSA) has backed a push by the state’s Minister for Local Government Don Page to arrest problems faced by regional councils in Western NSW including population decline, ageing infrastructure and financial sustainability by forging stronger relations between local, state and federal governments.
The renewed effort to revive the fortunes of Western NSW councils, which include Balranald, Bogan, Bourke, Brewarrina, Broken Hill, Carrathool, Central Darling, Cobar, Hay, Lachlan, Moree, Walgett and Wentworth comes after delegates aired serious concerns about long term economic difficulties at the annual conference of Western Division of Councils in NSW held in Nyngan this week.
The councils’ fears over dwindling population have been underscored by recent numbers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) that document a continuing downward trend in people living in rural areas spurred on by relocation interstate or to coastal areas.
The arrest of population decline in the West has become of survival for many communities as the critical skills needed to maintain services, including doctors and other essential services workers, become increasingly hard to find – in turn forcing residents to travel or move away their communities to get what they need.
“Councils in the far West are facing unprecedented community expectations to provide those services that are no longer available in the towns and villages,” Mr Page told conference delegates. “I know that in many cases councils are keeping their communities together by providing doctors, pharmacies and other essential services that city councils are not called upon to provide.”
The NSW Local Government Minister said that the state government has undertaken an infrastructure audit of all councils in the state in addition to introducing the Local Government Infrastructure Renewal scheme.
As councils at the conference expressed their urgent concerns to Mr Page, the minister called on the local governments to “embrace change”.
Mr Page said there needed to be stronger partnerships between local and state government both at the policy level and at the “coal face”.
“It will require us to collectively embrace change, engage in a meaningful way with communities and be open to new thinking and new opportunities. The only question we should be asking is ‘what is best for my community’,” Mr Page said.
An enduring point of debate between local and state governments how new local efficiencies can be gleaned after Premier Barry O’Farrell backed away from an earlier election promise not to force mergers between councils.
The state government has subsequently claimed that some funding models are unsustainable and Mr Page told the conference that a “comprehensive review” of the NSW Local Government Act was now underway “to ensure that it supports the direction of reform and reduces red tape.”
“We need a system of local government that is financially sustainable and doesn’t impose one size fits all solutions on different communities. We also need an Act that enables this modern system with a high degree of flexibility and encouragement for innovation by councils,” Mr Page said
Headed by John Turner, the Local Government Acts Taskforce, is expected to issue a discussion paper in late March that will ask for “input into what the new Act should look like and contain”.
Shires Association of NSW President Ray Donald said the NSW government is moving away from the “one-size-fits-all” approach for councils and a new governance model Western NSW is “on the cards”.
"Fundamental to the economic well-being of Western NSW communities is a formal partnership between the state and local government and for a 'whole of government' collaborative approach, which includes the Australian Government, to remove inefficiencies and duplications in service delivery,” Mr Donald said.
Another core element of the concerns brought up by NSW councils is that the establishment of the state government’s new Local Land Services (LLS) would cause significant shifting of where offices of essential services would be based.
Local Government Association of NSW President Keith Rhodes rejected suggestions that these changes would take place such as moving offices in small rural communities to be compacted into a regional centre, “simply so the NSW government can reduce their costs”.
Mr Rhoades said many councils across NSW are also worried that local government will be used to collect landholder rates on behalf of the new LLS.
“The NSW Government needs to think of a different solution, as local government is not the tax-collector for the state,” Mr Rhoades said.
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