As Hornsby Shire Mayor Philip Ruddock put it, appointing a General Manager is “one of the most important decisions a council can make”. To find out more about the person behind the role, Thomas and Hannah from LGIU Australia spoke with Steven Head, General Manager of Hornsby Shire Council, about some of the challenges and opportunities facing the council this year and beyond.
To start us off, tell us a bit about yourself and your team at the council.
In a nutshell, I often describe Hornsby Shire as a medium size council – with the resources of a smaller council and we deliver what the bigger councils do. Underpinning this is our team, our focus on sharp financial management and delivering what our community desire. Our team here at Hornsby have extensive backgrounds in local government, we have a great senior leadership team as well as extensive depth across our staff (with an average tenure of approximately 10 years). I count myself as a very fortunate General Manager.
About myself, I have been in the sector for around 30 years. Before that, I had my own business in the horticulture sector. I moved into local government and have worked in five different local governments and a stint in the NSW State Government working for Transport for NSW. My pathway began in parks, open space and recreation roles and over the years I have worked across major projects, infrastructure, strategy, governance and transport before getting into a General Manager role. I believe that local government is incredible for the diversity of experiences you can have in a single career. Not many industry sectors can offer that.
What do you believe are the key challenges for Hornsby Council at the moment?
In local government, I assume the problems and challenges are very similar across the world: whether it be housing, sustainable finance and climate, transport and cost of living pressures on our communities. Sadly, Hornsby is not exempt from the litany of challenges that every single local government area across the world is currently facing. Things like financial sustainability, resilience, and the lingering effects of the pandemic challenge nearly all sections of our council – and we also had a forced evacuation from our head office space related to asbestos!
Finally, like every local government, we are facing the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, as well as trying to attract and retain good staff in the current labour market. Nonetheless, overall I feel really lucky with the staff we have and the opportunities we have identified going forward!
On that note, what do you think are the key opportunities?
When it comes to opportunities, we have several key initiatives that we see as truly transformational. Hornsby Park immediately comes to mind. It is hard to describe the potential of this parkland which is literally 500 metres away from the very centre of Hornsby, but once you are there, you are in this incredible untouched bushland which surrounds a former quarry. Now, we’re trying to incorporate the wonderful bushland and forest because we envision it to become a major recreational destination for the region and a benefit to people even beyond our own borders. We believe it can be an anchor to help rejuvenate our overall town centre.
In terms of financial sustainability, we’ve just achieved a special rate variation, meaning we are allowed to increase our rates for landowners beyond the state-mandated cap. This is a really extensive process and to do that, we had to really understand our financial constraints and ensure we could remain financially sustainable into the next decade, expand our asset base and implement a number of strategic initiatives that the community had identified over a longer period of time.
On this transformational vision for Hornsby, how do you think state and federal governments can better support local government in your delivery?
Two things mainly, the first is a genuine seat at the table to help us define the problems and work towards solutions in a mature way. The second is to find sustainable funding models that allow us to be real players in the delivery of those solutions. State and federal governments need to see local government as a genuine partner in solving the problems, and from my perspective, the solution lies in the co-design of policy and solutions with the state government.
Unfortunately, what we all too often see are mandates from a high level – and sometimes knee-jerk reactions – to really substantial and complex problems, which in many cases, could be handled better and more pragmatically by local government because we have that understanding and social licence with our communities.
The second aspect is about access to sustainable revenues to address the problems. Local government is so heavily constrained, and while we do receive some grants from the federal government, that hasn’t increased in real terms in many, many years. This reliance on the state government for funding makes it difficult to generate revenues for what our communities like and autonomy for local government to be able to determine its own power.
If we can demonstrate community support in tackling a complex issue and have financial autonomy and flexibility to tackle it without going through the incredibly complex process of a special rate variation, we would have a far greater ability to deliver for our communities.
Circular economies are a big goal in local government at the moment and you’ve been working on this at Hornsby. Could you tell us more about your current initiatives?
Sydney is sleepwalking its way into the middle of a waste crisis. At the moment, we are set to lose nearly all of Sydney’s existing landfill by 2034, and we’ve got some really significant challenges with a lack of suitable infrastructure to process existing waste.
So, while there are some real challenges for us in the development of a circular economy and dealing with plastic recycling, there are a number of levels that Hornsby is responding to. First, we have a community recycling centre to drop off virtually any product that is capable of being recycled. We even won an award for recycling more mobile phones than any other community in Australia for three years running.
Secondly, one of the things we do, which is very uncommon, is we actually accept soft plastics for recycling. Through establishing a relationship with an organisation that can deal with a certain quantity of soft plastics – and we are very careful about the quantity – this great relationship with the provider also means we can buy back items such as bollards and street furniture. This is just one example of how we are trying to support the producers and other manufacturers through procurement policies to establish that ‘perfect circle’ of buying things that are coming back through that very manufacturer.
Lastly, from a wider policy perspective, we work with the North Sydney Region of 43 councils as a collective and try to work closely with the state government to co-design policies to create the means for plastics to be efficiently collected, transferred, recycled and find a market for these recycled goods. However, as a recent Mayors Forum in Sydney demonstrated, there is real momentum across local government right now to collaborate better in this space.
Building on this, what do you see as the role of local government when it comes to climate action?
This is a topic which exemplifies the ability of local government to collaborate and play an important role in people’s lives. We have an incredible opportunity to do something really productive in reducing emissions. For instance, the local government street light initiative is working on converting nearly all of Sydney’s street lights to LED. Through our contracts, we are working collectively across Sydney to also source green power – which is one of the biggest areas of emissions for us.
In Hornsby, we have taken the initiative to set targets for ourselves to become climate neutral by 2050, and we have implemented a range of projects from things like a wind turbine, sustainable procurement policies, solar panels on council buildings as well converting state highway light fittings to LED’s from renewable power. We also want to look at a grid scale like a renewable energy project in Hornsby itself.
In Australia, 50% of the cost of power is often the cost of transmitting from where it’s created to where the demand actually occurs, meaning providing a local grid-scale renewable solution offers a real transformation. What excites me the most is the capacity to do some renewable energy infrastructure at a much larger scale. The hope is to encourage the community to come on board and look at how we can work together on the community emissions profile.
Finally, you’ve been working in local government at a senior level since 2001. What would you say has been the biggest change you’ve noticed across those years?
Aside from this question making me feel quite old, fundamentally, the challenges are not that different from when I began, but what has changed is the intensity.
Things change at the margins, and as we noted earlier, the challenges facing local government in Scotland or New Zealand and so many other countries around the world are not that much different to the challenges we face here. How do we deliver for communities? How do we deliver for the future? How can we work with people and communities with limited resources?
What I mean by the intensity changing is obvious in the climate arena and with the issue of financial sustainability, but it is less reflected in how fundamentally different communicating with the community now is. I was recently reflecting with some colleagues about how 20 years ago if you wanted to contact your council, you first had to find a pen, letter, envelope, stamp and then post it. Now, I wake up most Mondays, and there’ll be 50 emails already in my inbox. And our community expects an answer that day.