By Paul Hemsley
A push by New South Wales Local Government Minister, Don Page, to rewrite inconsistent and ad-hoc legislation governing the operation of councils into simple and cohesive laws has secured vital backing from the state’s municipal power brokers, clearing the way for a clean-out of defective regulations.
The joint-president of Local Government New South Wales (LGNSW), Ray Donald has welcomed the O’Farrell government’s latest blueprint for changes to the way local government will operate under plain-English revisions to the Local Government Act 1993 and the City of Sydney Act 1988 that will flow onto all councils in the state.
The peak group’s support for the reforms is essential because it heads off the potential for new conflict in the already turbulent relationship with Macquarie street that has frayed over a potential backflip on an election promise by Premier Barry O’Farrell not to force council amalgamations.
The in-principle agreement to the legislative reform blueprint for local government goes some way to addressing demands from NSW councils for greater autonomy by eliminating many prescriptive and ad-hoc regulatory impositions by state and federal governments that have created big administrative and operational burdens.
The O’Farrell government’s move to overhaul the legislation that guides local government stems from the Local Government Acts Taskforce, a body that was created to hear the grievances of councils concerning present legislation.
Mr Donald said that local government had been “overregulated” by previous state governments, which has “inhibited” what councils can do to service ratepayers.
“Some state governments in the past [did not] like us, they almost think that we compete with them so they try to regulate us to the detriment of what we can do. So this review of the Act is long overdue and I believe it will free us up to do what we’re elected to do,” Mr Donald said.
Mr Page created the Taskforce as a result of a meeting between councillors and general managers from every council in NSW with state government representatives in Dubbo in August 2011 for the Destination 2036 initiative. That state-based initiative sought to find out what communities need from their councils.
The Taskforce’s discussion paper released on 4th April 2013 said its goal is to rewrite the state government legislation that controls how local government works by modernising the language into “plain” form.
Mr Donald told Government News that the Taskforce will address simplifying a lot of legislation by getting rid of amendments that have been made to address specific “one-off issues that aren’t really relevant for the whole sector”.
A common denominator between the councils that submitted proposals to the Taskforce is their desire to be “autonomous”, but councils also identified a raft of problems with the Local Government Act 1993 that they want changed in their favour.
The Discussion Paper noted that the question of what was not working well in the Local Government Act such as barriers and weaknesses prompted the biggest response in terms of council submissions. These varied from single issue submissions to detailed responses addressing each section of the present Act.
Councils complained to the Taskforce of overlaps and “at times inconsistency” between the Act and other legislation governing the operations and functions of local government.
The laundry list of weaknesses and barriers in the Act identified by councils included public land, acquisition of land, tendering, approvals, orders, councillor remuneration, expenses and facilities, elections, council staffing, public private partnerships and formation of corporations, conduct, revenue, fees, loans, audit and risk management, enforcement, alcohol free zones and alcohol prohibited zones and water management.
In response to the problems that councils have conveyed, the Taskforce has proposed integrated planning and reporting, “greater” use of technology, streamlining public management, simplification of approvals, orders and enforcement, revised procurement, capital expenditure framework and financial management.
Mr Page welcomed the release of the Discussion Paper, saying that it “signals the beginning of the second stage of the consultation process” to deliver a new Local Government Act to guide the way councils operate in the future.
“It is now over to the NSW community, who will now get a further chance to have their say on these important proposals for a new local government framework for the state,” Mr Page said.
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