The largest council in New South Wales and the fourth-largest council in Australia, Blacktown City Council, has 2,150 staff and oversees assets of over $7.3bn. It has an annual budget of over $750m ($AUD) and serves a population of around 415,000 people, which is projected to reach 644,000 by 2041.
To find out more about the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of New South Wales’ largest council, Thomas and Hannah from LGIU Australia spoke with Kerry Robinson OAM about his trajectory through property development and local government and about the opportunities and challenges Blacktown faces in servicing and preparing for an estimated growth of over 200,000 by 2041.
To start us off, tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and how you ended up here today.
Gaining a town planner cadetship with Blacktown City Council, I started right at the ground floor – working for the next six years at the council. Following a property valuation course, I joined Raine & Horne Commercial, doing commercial and industrial property research before moving into industrial land sales and finding out I am a really bad salesman.
Australia’s property market boom and crash in the early 1990s’ wasn’t a great time for the property development sector, but I was lucky enough to gain a position as a planning and development manager with a company called Delfin Property Group before moving to Lend Lease, one of Australia’s largest property development companies, where I worked on everything from project management of retail shopping centres to managing the design of large master-planned communities.
Following a move to the state government’s property developer, Landcom, I shifted into general management and in 2013 I took on the role of CEO at Blacktown City Council.
What are the top three outcomes you are hoping to achieve in the next two years?
Project management is one of the big challenges before us. Blacktown has been successful in gaining grant funds from the state government, so now we are feverishly working to deliver seven new community buildings for about $273m in four years whilst also building two new office buildings to cater for our growth because we have on sold our existing site for a very substantial commercial office redevelopment scheme.
The second big priority is continuing to lobby on the funding challenge for community facilities in the urban growth areas of metropolitan Sydney. State government policy says we can’t levy developers, meaning we are facing a shortfall of $630m for the delivery of new aquatics, libraries and community meeting places for an incoming population of more than 250,000 people.
Finally, we are looking for a smooth council election in September 2024. NSW has four-year fixed terms for councils, so we will be going through the normal process of corporate strategic planning, getting new councillors up to date on our increased project work and policy development will be quite a challenge.
On these three priorities, what sort of barriers and opportunities have you encountered?
Blacktown City Council is a place in four parts. First, we are the fourth largest council in Australia, so the continuous operation of day-to-day business is a substantial exercise in itself, especially when you consider how rate capping below the consumer price index in New South Wales means we’ve actually got a declining rate base to fund our operational services.
Second, a huge opportunity for us is our substantial program of business process reform. Partnering with the University of Technology Sydney, we developed a business reform methodology which has delivered about 2,300 improvement recommendations with 1,530 implemented and about 300 improvement actions in train. For any organisation, the implementation of over 300 improvement actions, year in and year out, is a huge undertaking – one which always comes with a price tag.
Third, both an opportunity and challenge, is serving our growth. Sitting in one of the two main urban growth corridors of Sydney means we are large and rapidly becoming much larger, with an additional 200,000 people likely to move to the city over the next 20-30 years. Our existing 30,000 businesses will grow in number commensurately.
This means we are responsible for collecting contributions from developers as well as servicing that growth with drainage networks, roads, parks and community facilities, which adds up to around a $4bn program. We’ve got close to 100 people working on planning, design, property acquisition and project management just to serve growth for the greenfield areas.
Finally, our set of transformational projects includes a number of major projects, from sensitively expanding a heritage cemetery to the new Blacktown Animal Rehoming Centre (BARC), inspired by US models of philanthropy and re-homing, to the new Blacktown, Exercise, Sports and Technology hub (BEST), and the re-development of a council-owned, district shopping centre in one of our town centres.
Going forward, the $5bn fund from the previous State Government called WestInvest means, over the coming years, we have some major projects in the pipeline, including a $77m re-development of an existing aquatic centre, a $20m new Aboriginal cultural centre, a $23m extension to the Library and Community Hub in Mount Druitt town centre, a $25m Police Citizens Youth Centre, a $36m new Library and Community Meeting Hub in Seven Hills and the $40m new Leo Kelly Arts Centre in Blacktown City Centre. However, as grant-funded projects do not have cost escalation funding, there is a huge challenge when it comes to delivering and coordinating across the seven project teams to deliver on time and on budget.
What is really interesting is the program management methods and processes that we have put in place to deliver the WestInvest projects. Blacktown City Council has an efficient methodology and a strong reputation for program management, so we are talking to other councils about our set-up and sharing our knowledge, which is producing a really interesting journey of learning.
What is the approach of Blacktown to regeneration and place-based development?
Our former Mayor used to call Blacktown City Centre a ‘stagecoach town’ with post-war single-story shop fronts, and like many western town centres we are facing the challenge of high street decline. So how do we tackle that?
The first thing we did was encourage a university to come into the city centre to bring youthful energy and help its revitalisation. We also have a teaching hospital close to the CBD, and the state government has poured close to a billion dollars into its expansion and refurbishment over the last five years, so we are building on the relationship between the CBD and the hospital to deliver new and improved health services for the community.
A focus has been re-imagining our use of space. From changing the planning controls within the city centre to allow for tall mixed-used residential and commercial opportunities, we’ve also taken lessons from European initiatives and re-purposed car parks within the city centre. We have built a $80m project incorporating a 480-space underground car park capped with a beautiful town plaza, which has cleared about two hectares of on at-grade car park to create four substantial redevelopment sites which can accommodate about 100,000 square metres of floor space.
We are working with the development industry to make sure our individual development actions spark a catalyst for further development. We have sold the core of the city centre previously occupied by the council to Walker Corporation, Australia’s largest private property developer, who plans a substantial commercial office development, along with a private hospital and medical research institute to deliver around 4,500 additional jobs into the city centre. This project will add hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy of the city and more generally.
It is the way this will catalyse other actions that we are focused on. The Warrick Lane car park can accommodate enough floor space for about 1,000 apartments, and Walker Corporation’s work will result in other developers and users entering the city and creating new opportunities for our community – new jobs, new businesses and new services.
From your experience working in the sector, how have you witnessed the planning system awaken and adapt to the climate challenge?
Planning in the greater Sydney area has undergone significant change. The previous Greater Sydney Commission (now the Greater Cities Commission) radically changed the bureaucracy’s appreciation of the metropolis by conceiving Sydney as a city of three places: the Eastern City focusing on Sydney CBD; the Central River City on the metropolitan area’s second CBD, Paramatta; and, the Western Parklands City on the new Aerotropolis adjacent the Nancy Bird Walton Airport, which is well under construction and set to commence operations in 2026. Ultimately, this changed funding and perceptions from simply moving people from the west of Sydney inwards to the core CBD, to a focus on creating opportunities in suburban locations for a multi-centred city.
In relation to climate change, the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils focuses heavily on urban heat, which is the West’s biggest challenge from climate change.
I am Chair of the Greater Sydney Urban Heat Task Force, where councils, WSROC and Resilient Sydney are working across academia, state and commonwealth bureaucracies and councils, to implement strategies to mitigate urban heat.
In Blacktown, that means altering the state-set planning controls and moving towards urban heat-friendly controls, such as ensuring that our statutory plans do not result in narrow streets and small lot sizes, which prevent the planting of large, shading trees.
Finally, what is one key piece of advice for those interested, or starting off, in a local government career?
There are two pathways to take: you can specialise and become your very best in your field, or you can generalise and pursue management. As I started with a relatively broad town planning degree, I have taken opportunities when available to broaden my knowledge and pursue management.
You also have to create opportunities by working hard, which can lead to being appreciated for board roles. I was offered a position on the New South Wales Architects Registration Board, which grounded me in the way boards work, and since then, I have been a director at Link Wentworth Housing, a community housing provider with around 200 staff and 6,500 homes.
I’ve never had a fixed career plan, but I have worked under the philosophy that I would take opportunities to broaden my knowledge, skill set and understanding of how things work – and here I am today, sitting as the Deputy Chair of CivicRisk Mutual Ltd, the Director of CivicRisk Insurance Limited its insurance company in Guernsey, and Deputy Chair of Council’s wholly owned corporate subsidiary, Blacktown Venue Management Ltd.
So, it is up to you to choose your own path, work hard and be noticed.