In conversation with Brett Luxford, Chief Executive of Mitchell Shire Council
Taking part in LGIU’s local government leadership spotlight series, Brett Luxford, Chief Executive of Mitchell Shire Council, discusses the opportunities and challenges facing their Council as well as the broader sector overall.
To start with, after nearly two years of experience at a Chief Executive level in local government, what are your reflections on the role of local government in Australia?
For me, the role of local government remains as strong as ever in delivering outcomes for our communities and representing the needs of our communities.
Both the pandemic and natural disasters show how nimble local governments can be in responding to challenges. And in the case of Mitchell Shire, we were able to maintain our services during those extended periods of lockdown, particularly in Victoria, which enabled our community to continue to access our services. Particularly when they were locked down locally, people really valued the local service delivery of Mitchell Shire.
During the flooding Seymour, once again, local government was right there on the frontline throughout the event and afterwards in terms of the relief effort, clean up and long-term recovery.
Because of local governments strong community focus, this means we have a crucial role to play in advocating to and expressing needs to other tiers of government because local government is there day in and day out in our communities.
One example that springs to mind is the demand for housing and population growth.
Trying to deliver vital community infrastructure, such as community centres and sporting fields, is not the role of the state government – that is a key role for local government because we understand the needs of our community.
This is particularly true for Mitchell Shire as we are growing a fast rate – we’re currently around 50,000, but we’ll be about 170,000 within the next 20 years. Therefore, local government’s role is not only for the community we have now, but it is also the community that will call Mitchell home in the future.
As 2023 rolls on, what are the key opportunities and challenges for Mitchell Shire Council at the moment?
Where do we start? Financial sustainability remains a key challenge for every local government. Costs are going up much quicker than any of our revenue bases and we are fast reaching the point where we have to look at how we deliver our services, what we can deliver and how to do so.
Another challenge as part of that is maintaining investment in our asset base. Our roads and buildings and everything else require continual maintenance, and as a growth Council, we have around about $40 million in new assets that come on board every year from new developments.
For example, as developers finish developments, the roads, buildings and playgrounds they develop come across to us to maintain, so each year, we are adding $40 million worth of assets, which, again, are areas we need to continually maintain and depreciate.
Another really interesting challenge for local government is how we engage with diverse communities. A lot of the people in our community consume information in so many different ways and on so many different platforms. So how do we actually ensure that we are engaging in meaningful ways so that we get the right information out to people?
Putting things on our website and in the local paper no longer cuts it for a lot of people. Going forward, we need to make sure that we are tapping into what the community actually want, not just the loud voices in the community.
But opportunities are there, and for Mitchell Shire, it is an exciting time to look at our suite of services and understand what our community needs and how can we do it differently?
Part of that is innovation. Innovation is at the core of what we do, and I am keen to explore what local government can do differently?
As a Chief Executive, the opportunity remains to remind our community and employees that innovation is there, and when we make decisions, what impact will that have on our staff and our communities?
People-centric decisions remain a key opportunity for us. And as one of the fastest-growing local governments in Victoria, we need to look at how we build communities and understand that communities will change. Can we meet their needs in times of climate change? Is there enough canopy and shade? Enough active travel routes?
Mitchell Shire is a good example of the excitement of working in local government. You can work with the community, you can implement programmes or initiatives, and you can see the results of those on the ground. However, that also means you become a local government nerd and find yourself taking pictures of pieces of infrastructure when you’re on holiday!
(Interview continues below)
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Recruitment and changes in the way we work is a challenge for local authorities around the world. What is the approach at Mitchell Shire towards new ways of working and where do you see trends in how, when and where we work changing?
You have to be agile, and you only have to look to the pandemic to see how working from home changed the workforce and how we communicate with the public.
At Mitchell Shire, we put in place flexible working early on, and now, around 95% of our office-based staff have a flexible agreement in place. We also implemented a hot-desk system of bookings when they come into the space.
Going forward, flexible working is a given everywhere, and there is strong pressure to innovate and stay ahead of the game and do all that we can to retain staff.
For Mitchell Shire, a really important thing for us is making the sector interesting. Picking up on that ability to make a difference in local government is key. More than 70% of our staff live in Mitchell Shire, so not only are they making a difference to the community, they are making a difference to their communities and where their families live. Therefore, encouraging people to see what local government is and how local government can make a difference is key.
Part of our approach is also about ensuring a great workplace culture. Culture beats everything. Making sure you have a supportive and collaborative workforce where people enjoy coming to work starts with the Chief Executive and the Executive team and filters right down throughout the organisation.
Culture feeds both into retaining staff and into being an employer of choice. We have just reviewed our employee value proposition, and in that, we ensure there was sufficient healthcare, benefits and things like access to the local gym, which is part of rebranding Mitchell as a modern contemporary organisation that attracts people.
A final aspect from a recruitment point of view is how do we grow our own people? People who come and work from us should be supported to grow in their careers and skills. If we value our people they may take promotions at other Councils but they will also be welcome to return and bring their new found skills and experiences back to Mitchell Shire.
Post-pandemic there has been an increased focus on our lived environment, and town centres in particular. It would be really interesting to hear about your town centre strategy and the regeneration issues and solutions implemented.
Mitchell Shire has two really standout examples of our approach to town centres and regeneration.
First, in Seymour, which has a core population of 6000 but serves a wider 25,000-30,000, a group came together – Revilitising Seymour – who identified key projects to implement and work on. We prioritised that list of tasks and set about master planning for a large streetscape project to improve the lived environment and amenities and active travel in Seymour so communities can access the town in different ways.
Second, in Kilmore, the Northern highway runs through to town despite residents waiting over 30 years for a bypass. Businesses were reluctant to invest there, so we partnered with the state government to do some streetscape regeneration. We just finished a project with improved crossing opportunities, new trees, and new community areas, and already we are seeing businesses taking on alfresco dining.
Kilmore is moving into the future, and both these examples demonstrate local government’s role in facilitating the investment in these spaces. When you do so, you can really see the benefits and momentum when people use these activity centres, and businesses start to invest themselves.
As local government service delivery will increasingly feel the impacts of climate change, what do you see as local government’s role when it comes to climate action?
We need to be a leader in this space and ensure we are investing in the infrastructure. The recent floods in our shire are a powerful example of how “one in a hundred year events” are a real threat to our municipality.
The floods in Seymour particularly highlighted the inability of our infrastructure to cope with higher rainfall events, and this is set to increase in scale and frequency through climate change. And as a municipality surrounded by natural vegetation, we are acutely aware of the risk of bushfires. So we need to demonstrate to the community that we’re doing our part in climate change.
Currently, we’re in the middle of developing our climate emergency action plan. Mitchell Shire Council has declared a climate emergency, and we recognise that you have to go beyond a declaration and deliver real tangible action. For example, to do that, we are investing in alternative renewable energy in some of our spaces.
This is just one example of the actions. Still, when we do that, we can start demonstrating to our Councillors and communities the benefits of investing in these new spaces and going forward, we have developed a new sustainable building policy for all of our buildings.
Mitchell Shire cannot do this alone, so we are working with the state government and a number of other Councils around how do we influence our planning outcomes to get better climate initiatives built into the new development.
As a growing municipality, we see a lot of new developments. Hence, we really need to ensure that developers build spaces which meet climate needs and not put people into inefficient energy buildings.
We are leaders in that space, but we also need to bring the community on that journey with us. Responding to climate change is good business, and it is not something additionally, it is good business and is the core of our work.
Finally, reflecting on your time as Chief Executive, what do you see as critical to ensuring a good relationship with the elected members of the Council?
Communication is number one for me and this means communications from both directions. When I communicate with Councillors, and vice versa, that allows us to have that “no surprises” approach on both sides. What that does is help build trust between our Councillors and our communities, and this is an example which flows right down from your Executive Team to your managers.
Another important trait for being a Chief Executive is up-front honesty. It can be tempting to communicate with Councillors with the attitude that what we’re presenting to Councillors has to be perfect. But they are not looking for that all the time. They are looking for how they can input into what we are doing. They have ideas about how projects and initiatives should operate, and we should work with them. We are not just bringing them a final product to rubber stamp.
Finally, part of being a leader is being vulnerable and admitting when you don’t know something and admitting when you’ve made mistakes. Again this builds trust with the Councillors and also allows you to have those difficult conversations instead of building walls.
These lessons are not always easy, especially when you have nine different individuals to build relationships with, but if you build an environment to communicate openly, you cannot go too far wrong.
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