Time to devolve local government powers: report

The community should be able to establish bodies within the council system with powers and resources to get things done, a report by a network of local government experts recommends.

Professor Graham Sansom

The report, Place Based Governance and Local Democracy: Will Australian Local Government Deliver, is based on research and discussions from  LogoNet Australia about how to promote local democracy.

The report suggests it’s time to introduce a statutory community right to instigate local entities devolved from a ‘parent’ council.

“To stimulate an agenda of devolution and localism, the time has surely come to confer a legislative right for communities and neighbourhoods to initiate the establishment of local entities with some real decision-making authority,” the report says.

“Why must communities wait for councils to muster the will and courage?”

One of the authors, Graham Sansom, told Government News this is already occurring internationally in the form of New Zealand’s community boards and Britain’s parish and town council system.

But the reaction to this suggestion from local authorities in Australia has always been negative, he says.

“It’s always been, ‘no we’ve already got too many levels of government, this would be a fourth level  … we’re the elected representatives of the people and should just get on with it’,” Professor Sansom says.

“But we’re not talking about something that’s separate. We’re talking about something that is part of the system that’s run by the local council, but which has a significant degree of autonomy.

“We’re not talking setting up replacements for the existing councils, it’s about  the possibility of local communities deciding for themselves that they want something like this. I don’t see that that’s a particularly radical suggestion.”

Place-based governance ‘patchy and tentative’

The report says place-based and community governance by Australian councils is “patchy and tentative” and “the available evidence suggests that relatively few in the sector are ready to embrace and explore the potential to its fullest extent”.

It says stakeholder discussions reveal widespread concerns that many Australian councils lack “the will or capacity” to adopt new forms of democratic decision-making – and they are not being helped by the attitude from higher levels of government that they are little more than administrative entities.

“One of the issues with local government in Australia is that it feels as if it’s under the yoke of double centralism – you’ve got the Commonwealth which exercises powers which come down to the local level, and then you’ve got the states, who exercise absolute power over  local government,” Professor Sansom says.

“Local government and senior managers tend to get preoccupied with the need to protect their patch as institutions of government.”

But he says the clock is ticking for local councils to take a lead in collective community building with the growth of larger community-based and commercial service providers.

He says the days when councils were the sole providers of all local services are gone, with an increasing role played by private, community and NGO contractors, from waste management to preschools and childcare centres.

“So in a sense the cat’s already out of the bag, it’s not a case of ‘all roads lead to the council chambers’. Once you have these other people playing a substantial role in providing services to the local community it’s already sort of devolved.”

Devolved decision making

The report says the way forward for councils is in devolving decision making to the community, adopting a stewardship role and ensuring better community consultation and open access to information.

It contains a number of examples where this is occurring, including collective impact models to tackle social and economic disadvantage being used by Burnie and Inner West councils.

Melbourne City Council has established a Peoples Panel which has had input into council’s financial planning  and Noosa Shire has a community jury that grew out of de-amalgamation, while Waratah-Wynrard council has been experimenting with NZ-style community boards which are instrumental in developing community plans.

But while growing number of councils are responding to the challenge of fostering community-led governance there’s still an entrenched reluctance to look beyond service delivery, and many still lack the courage or willingness to do so, the report says.

It says there is a widespread view that councils are often reluctant to see beyond the real or perceived limits on their autonomy, role and capacity.

“It would seem that many councils – or at least many of those councillors and managers who currently wield power – remain wedded to a more or less rigid application of representative democracy, with little interest in considering more participative practices and community-led arrangements,” the report says.

“If councils are to be champions and enablers of place-based community governance they need to grasp and apply this unique power more often and foster collaborative processes grounded in the strengths of their communities.”

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3 thoughts on “Time to devolve local government powers: report

  1. Interesting article (though a link to the report would be nice). Council’s certainly are in the sights of State and Federal government, as well as the community at large. With that kind of oversight, it’s no surprise they become “protective and defensive” to reform.

  2. If legislation and regulations were written such that there were actual penalties for staff and councillors who ignore residents, or pander to a few at the expense of the whole, then Councils would work as they should. Adding extra layers is no help.

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