Recognising local government in difficult times

What a year it’s been, writes NSW Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock.

From New Year’s Day onwards we have faced some of the most difficult times in living memory. As the year started we continued to battle the unprecedented bushfire crisis – our Black Summer – with the tragic loss of lives, homes and millions of hectares of bushland.

Shelley Hancock

Fire quickly turned to flood. Then came something few of us had heard of – coronavirus – which would forever change our way of life.

And all this at a time when many of our rural communities were continuing to battle the devastating impacts of the drought. And, many still are suffering.

I have long said that councils are the heart of their communities and none more so than during the hard times. This year has proven that beyond any doubt.

However, too often we are quick to criticise councils for not providing adequate services, or for a pot hole that seemingly reappears time and time again.

Councils are constantly overlooked for the amazing services and support they provide to our communities. They will generally be the first to respond to a crisis, and so often will be the ones to share resources and knowledge to better assist communities in need.

That’s why during Local Government Week I am urging everybody to pause and recognise the significant contribution our local councils have made to respond and recover from the crises of 2020.

During the bushfire crisis, local councils operated evacuation centres, co-ordinated donated goods and services, carried out emergency bushfire response works, and repaired and rebuilt community infrastructure.

Councils have also been vital in responding to COVID-19, retraining and redeploying staff to minimise job losses and maintaining essential community facilities and services in the face of significant restrictions and financial distress.

They have also provided financial relief for residents and businesses by deferring rates, providing rate rebates, waiving fees and interest, reducing rents, offering grants and making donations.

We also saw many of our mayors rise to the challenge and play a key role in fostering community spirit and wellbeing during the pandemic, providing strong leadership, and a calm voice of reason in times of turmoil. This is what grassroots community representation is all about.

And we all know that the job is not done yet, with the re-emergence of COVID-19 again threatening our economic and social wellbeing.

These crises have left our communities stronger and more resilient than before.

And they have proven how State and local government can stand side by side to stare adversity in the face and overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges together.

Councils have also once again shown that they will stand by each other, especially during the bushfire crisis when unaffected councils rose to the challenge and voluntarily went to the aid of devastated communities.

Local Government Week is also a reminder of the staggering size and scale of our local government sector – 128 local councils, employing more than 48,000 people, spending over $12 billion on infrastructure, facilities and services annually, and managing community assets worth nearly $154 billion.

It’s fair to say councils are the economic lifeblood of our communities and vital contributors to the State economy.

But they are so much more – the common thread that stitches the social fabric of our local communities.

It is often easy to criticise those on the ground, and perhaps even easier for many in State and Federal government to dismiss the concerns of a local council, failing to recognise their unique ability to adapt and respond to changing and challenging circumstances – often with limited resources.

So this Local Government Week, I challenge everyone to stop and think about their local council and what they do to assist our communities.

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