I just spent a fascinating two days at the Australia Future of Local Government Summit. About a third of all Australia’s 565 councils were there, along with some civil servants from the state governments – who have power to reorganise and impose reorganisation on local government.
There was energy in the presentations and approaches to delivering local democracy, community engagement and proving value to local communities. Typical comments were “If we don’t nobody else will” and “Shaping the future we want – not accepting what we are given”. I hope to get you some interesting guest blogs in coming weeks.
Preparing for or pre-empting the next rounds of enforced amalgamations was a key concern. My talk on ‘Localism and Realism’ in England got positive feedback, with great interest in the range of shared services, new models and structures being developed, such as the London Tri-borough proposal and the locally-led new Manchester Combined Authority.
Councils have financial autonomy, over 75% funding is from locally set and collected domestic and business rates, but many states have imposed capping on rises and low populated areas depend more on state and some federal grants.
Yet over a third of Australian councils may be financially unviable and unsustainable – which is chilling to hear as we plan for relocalisation of business rates. And there is inherent inequality – I kept hearing “The City of Sydney has more money than it can spend” (as the business and retail centre, it is similar to Westminster council).
There was interesting discussion of funding mechanisms, different joint ventures and arms-length bodies, deferred council tax for elders charged on their properties. More controversially, many councils gain funding from local taxes on gambling – up to 15% of their revenue – but Australia has a very high rate of ‘problem gamblers’ who carry on until they have lost everything and some councils are now taking up the moral cause to challenge the expansion of casinos and ‘pokeys’ – slot machines.
Leaders are generally full time and paid, but there is variability in the range of part-time allowances. As well as robust party politics there are strong independent councillors, and also a tradition of going on into state government and keeping the council seat – a third of the New South Wales Parliament is also a local councillor – including Clover Moore, the high profile independent Mayor of Sydney who has been re-elected in both roles.
Improving financial viability and community leadership was a priority for both the sparsely populated yet largish rural areas “we have no traffic lights in my council area at all – for hundreds of miles” and the urban areas. 70% of Australians live in the five largest cities, of which only Brisbane is a large single super-council – with 1.7m population (of Australia’s total 22m) and assets and revenue that enable all its 26 councillors to be full-time paid and have paid staff.
But the average council has ten councillors and 28,000 population, some fewer. No other council has more than fifteen councillors. So the Leader or directly elected Mayor has to focus on priorities and set clear objectives through community consultation alongside their officials. CEO/General Managers work to five year fixed term contracts setting out their key objectives.
Many of the attendees were well connected with UK local government. They didn’t feel their councils’ political leadership was diminished by having fewer councillors, as the ratio of councillor to population is similar. A councillor from rural Mansfield was excited by the opportunity to compare experiences next year when he visits England for the meeting of all the Mansfield councils across the world.
The drivers for amalgamation are finance and business pressure. Business wants fewer and more effective organisations to liaise with. There are around 44 councils in the Sydney conurbation and 31 in Melbourne which both make up around 75% of the population and local tax base for their respective states. The states run functions such as integrated transport, aspects of economic development and are less keen on having a unified city regional council which would take those roles.
Imagine the role of devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland if there were only one huge city in each of them with a vast sparse hinterland. Yet that is what the New Zealand government has just imposed on Auckland, amalgamating local councils and the regional body into one – which now serves a third of the whole national population. The future is local but it could take various different forms.
Amalgamation to form bigger tax bases and shared services to cut costs may not be enough to deal with cost growth that is exceeding revenue growth even in areas of growing population. There is an increased demand for services, a rapidly aging population for the first time, and some cost-shifting from other levels of government.
Many councils are undertaking detailed service reviews based on English best value and are developing their management capacity and restructuring their workforces. There are skills shortages and huge interest in recruiting experienced staff from the UK, particularly with technical know-how.
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And finally – I may be in contact to fix up meetings as many of the Australians regularly travel and are keen to visit local government in England and find out more for themselves of what works and what they can take back – not just your staff.If you are interested in a meeting, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.