In recent years there have been significant reforms to the way Sydney governs itself, including at a local level. The introduction of the Greater Sydney Commission, the Western Sydney City Deal and a program of council amalgamations across NSW, with a particular focus on Greater Sydney, has changed the dynamic of governance across the city. Having undergone major reforms, local government should now be in a position to consolidate and focus on the task of supporting their local communities with services, advocating for their region, and building a better city.
While a period of consolidation is welcome, this is not and should not be the end of reform or change. Local government performs a central role in managing and making Sydney. As the tier of government closest to local communities, it does not merely deliver services - it shapes neighbourhoods and places. If Sydney is to manage the growth pressures it is experiencing, if we are going keep our city accessible, liveable and lovable, if we are going to ensure all our citizens have a reasonable quality of life, then we need a strong, professional and well-resourced local government.
More importantly, we need to afford our local tier of government more respect for the role it plays in making our city. We need to treat local government as equal partners with the other tiers of government. Great cities don’t happen by chance. They happen when all tiers of government work in partnership with each other, and our citizens, towards a common goal. They happen when the engine of government and community fires on all pistons.
The Committee for Sydney believes that the next series of local government reforms should be more cultural than structural. They should be less about others ‘doing things’ to local government, like forced amalgamations or regulation of revenues, and more about elevating and empowering local government.
In our recent report, A New Era for Local Government, the Committee champions a greater role for local government because cities need strong and vocal advocates at a local level. Mayors, councillors and their staff can develop and articulate a vision for city-shaping that goes beyond their boundaries. Local service delivery is important and valued, but the role of local government is much more than that. Elected politicians and officials are uniquely placed to understand the spatial, governance and geographical challenges facing our city - so a louder voice in a time of momentous change in our city is both needed and welcome.
Our report proposes several recommendations to re-balance the ledger between local government and other players in Sydney. We encourage greater partnership between councils themselves and with state government, including the introduction of Town Centre Deals, a smaller City Deal, which would act as a partnership between state government, the Greater Sydney Commission, local governments and major private sector stakeholders in individual town centres.
Building on progress made through the Western Sydney City Deal, we also advocate enhancing greater regional collaboration visa the creation of a Council of Sydney Mayors and general managers that meets every 6 months, brought together by the GSC for a discussion on a major strategic issue facing Sydney, with power to make binding decisions.
Finally, financial reform at a local level is required. Sydneysiders pay the lowest council rates in Australia. This is not something to proud of. Cities rely on local services to thrive. We need more and better parks, decent footpaths and cycle ways, cleaner streets with better amenities. To better fund crucial local infrastructure, the Committee believes that rate pegging should be removed. As Sydney’s population grows, this form of capping creates some very perverse outcomes. Because rates are capped at the dollar value, a council experiencing strong population growth is unable to raise enough money to meet the community’s needs. In short, councils are being penalised by supporting growth while those communities most resistant to taking their fair share are being rewarded.
We should also resource local elected representatives properly. It is an anomaly that whilst other elected politicians, such as State Members, receive a salary, elected representatives in local government receive an allowance instead. One direct result of this is that serving councillors do not receive a superannuation contribution, as their remuneration is regarded as a stipend rather than a salary. Such restrictions act as a barrier to encouraging talented people from all parts of the community to stand and serve as local representatives.
Local government performs a crucial role in supporting and enhancing our local communities. Whilst the era of structural reform in NSW is over, we mustn’t lose the opportunity to develop and build capacity within the sector.
Eamon Waterford is Director of Policy at the Committee for Sydney