A review panel has recommended a suite of reforms to local government in WA, including establishing an independent body with the power to oversee council amalgamations.
The Local Government Review Panel’s final report includes 65 recommendations for a new Local Government Act in Western Australia.
The review was designed to future-proof local government in the state, and has taken on a new significance in a post-COVID world.
The panel didn’t make any specific recommendations about forced amalgamations, which it says were outside its terms of reference.
But it does push for provisions that would make it easier for councils to merge or cooperate more closely.
The recommendations also address the need for a renewed focus on integrity, inclusive local democracy, efficient service delivery and accountability across the sector, local government minister David Templeman said as he released the report on August 5.
As well as the creation of a Local Government Commission, the report recommends the establishment of NZ-style Community Boards, the use of subsidiaries to increase councils’ participation in regional economic activity, and a clarification of the roles and relationships between mayors, councillors and CEOS.
WA’s peak body for local government, WALGA, says it’s anticipated that most councils will “generally support” the recommendations.
“For the most part I believe the Local Government sector in WA will support the vast majority of the recommendations that are clearly intended to modernise an Act that is now 25 years old,” President Tracey Roberts said.
However she said WALGA was seeking clarification around mergers and amalgamations.
Mr Templeman has ruled out forcing amalgamations – which failed spectacularly in Perth in 2015 – although he has indicated the government would encourage mergers.
WA has 137 local governments representing from 200 to 200,000 people and the COVID-19 crisis has focused attention on the need to “maximise the capacity and resilience” of the current system, the report says.
“Western Australian local governments can be either too small to meet their responsibilities, or too big to be properly representative of different localities within them, and respond adequately to varying community needs and demands,” the panel reports.
“Various options for structural reform have a role to play, and the new Act should include measures to facilitate necessary adjustments.”
This includes the establishment of an independent commission combining the functions of the Local Government Grants Commission and Local Government Advisory Board.
The new body, based on the South Australian model, would be responsible to the minister and would oversee amalgamations and boundary changes, management of commonwealth grants and the general performance of the sector.
Panel member Professor Graham Sansom, who advised the NSW government on council amalgamations, said the WA government had already ruled out forced amalgamations.
“The government as a policy statement has already ruled out forced amalgamations so everybody needs to calm down and be clear about that,” he told Government News.
However, the report did find that the process for amalgamations and boundary changes was in need of review.
“We do point out in the report that the WA system hasn’t changed very much in a long time and it does have a lot of small councils in rural and remote areas,” Professor Sansom said.
The panel says the new legislation should also include an option for local governments to establish community boards similar those that have been operating in New Zealand for the last three decades.
Community boards could replace merged councils or could be set up within a large local government area to represent a distinct community, such as a remote Aboriginal settlement.
The report also advocates a stronger model of regional subsidiaries for strategic planning, resource sharing, services delivery and commercial enterprises.
Meanwhile, the panel calls for a “refreshing” and redefinition of roles and responsibilities around mayors, councillors and CEOs.
“The important thing is that the relationships are clear,” Professor Sansom says.
“One of the problems that all states have found is that you need to make it clear what authority does the mayor have, what authority do the councellors have as the governing body and how does the governing body and the mayor related to the CEO. Unless you get those roles and regulations clear you leave the door open to controversy and disputes.”
Impact of COVID-19
Panel chair David Michael says the COVID-19 crisis has focused attention on the need to bolster local government resilience and warns the demands on the sector will increase.
“An Act based on this report would prepare local governments in Western Australia not just for the challenges of today, or the next few years, but for the long-term, and would put them in good stead to continue to foster healthy, connected and engaged communities,” he said.
Professor Sansom said while the review commenced before COVID, the pandemic became a critical issue while the panel was doing its work.
“In the post COVID environment a lot of councils are finding themselves not only having to look at how they reinstate not only their own operations, but also how they can work as part of the economic and social recovery process post COVID,” he told Government News.
“So a lot of what we’ve had to say about working with community in terms of more effective strategic planning, more effective financial management processes – all of that fits in with the post COVID agenda of recovery.”
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