Would Fewer Councils be Better?

Former Melbourne City Council chief executive Elizabeth Proust was reported in the Age(March 21) saying that 'Melbourne must slash its number of councils to one.'  You can't get a bigger ambit claim than that, and it is perhaps, the first serious call for an Enquiry into Local Government in Victoria.  

The Kennett government reduced the number of councils in Victoria from 210 to 78 (now 79) in the 1980's. A courageous move Minister, Sir Humphrey would have said with some justification; it was long overdue.

The responses to this latest claim were predictable.  Melbourne's Lord Mayor Robert Doyle didn't support the Brisbane model of one metropolitan council, and the Samantha Dunn, president of the Victorian Governance Association also rejected the idea.  The president of the Municipal Association of Victoria, Bill McArthur thought Victorians were not ready for more council upheaval. Well, they all have vested interests and after all, it's only twenty-five years since the last lot of changes!

But despite this opposition it's also clear from the metropolitan-wide activities of energetic people like Mary Drost and Julianne Bell, and the grassroots engagement of local groups in my area like LIVE (the acronym stands for 'Locals into Victoria's Environment), Port People and unChain, that all is not well with local government.

Ms Proust, who also headed the premier's department soon after the last round of major council amalgamations in the 1980's, states two related reasons for wanting change.  She claims that planning for population growth was too hard for the dozens of local councils in Melbourne, that, as a consequence of their size there was too much opportunity for 'not in my backyard' attitudes to reject the medium and higher densities she rightly thinks are necessary to accommodate growth.

She said she realised that the 'one council' solution would be unpopular, especially with the State government, and that consideration should therefore be given to four or six mega councils, and that perhaps the new councils she advocated could mirror the upper house boundaries for the State parliament.

Whether these things would automatically be corrected with half a dozen big councils is a moot point, but before considering that, it's important to discuss what can be done to slow down population growth rather than just accepting it as inevitable. 

In 2010, Kelvin Thompson, Labor backbencher in the Federal parliament, proposed an excellent fourteen-point plan to stabilize Australia's population at around twenty six million people rather than the 35 million (or more) people estimated by 2050 if nothing were done. It's self evident to Thompson (and to me) that ever larger populations are unsustainable, that the more people there are, the more problems like global warming, food and water shortages, overcrowded cities, transport congestion, the extinction of species and collapse of fisheries, and even war and acts of terrorism, will be exacerbated.

After Thompson's initiative a Minister for Population was appointed with a brief to develop a policy before the end of the decade; clearly no one is in a hurry.  Despite being such a slow and difficult thing to act on, at the same time limiting growth is a matter of the greatest urgency.

This is a whole separate issue that I'll come back to, and although in my opinion it's the way to go, whatever happens, the growth of our cities will not slow down for many years.  Ms Proust says that Melbourne, which currently exceeds four million people, will need to accommodate several million more people before 2050. So how to best to permit changes in our suburbs is still an issue we cannot avoid addressing.

Those opposed to more amalgamations say things like, 'long term strategic planning is best achieved by local government being highly engaged with their communities,' and 'local government offers closeness to the people.' 

And although I take issue with this in detail I agree with it in principle, but it's hard to see that bigger councils would improve the situation of 'close engagement'. But perhaps this is really Ms Proust's thrust, that bigger councils would be less close and that nimby protests could therefore be dismissed more easily.

I think Ms Proust is probably right, the bigger they are, the less they would listen. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they would also embrace the higher density development needed to sop up Melbourne's growth.

The City of Port Phillip already has one of the highest densities in Melbourne so there do not seem to be the same blanket objections there to density per se that one finds in most lower density suburbs.  Most contentious planning issues in Port Phillip seem to be more about the development of particular prominent sites than density in general.  The planning challenge is no longer the inner suburbs but the sprawling outer areas of the metropolis.

What Ms Proust's argument reveals of course is the absence of a strong overall planning body with the political will to lay down clear and enforceable planning controls to coordinate metropolitan growth.

 A bit of background history might help. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, a public utility board, was set up in 1891 to provide water supply, sewerage and sewage treatment functions for the city.  Among it's other responsibilities were town planning, management of parks and open space, maintenance of metropolitan highways and bridges, foreshore protection and improvements and monitoring waste discharges. 

In 1954 the Board was made the chief planning authority for metropolitan Melbourne, a role they played until 1985 when these functions were passed to the Department of Planning and the Environment.  The MMBW finally disappeared when it became Melbourne Water in 1991, and the planning functions have since been shuffled around and are now within the Department of Planning and Community Development.  

The previous Labor government developed a plan called Melbourne 2030 that was starting to bite, but the Bailleau government intends to replace it with 'A new Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Strategy,' which is still under preparation.

There seems to be a general consensus that Melbourne's overall planning hasn't been very effective over the last twenty-five years, and some of the green wedges have already been released for housing due to developer pressure.  In the absence of a politically strong central authority, planning for things like growth will fall between the cracks. 

Rather than the current mindless expansion outwards, subsuming the green wedges that were to be Melbourne's boundary, our aspiration should be to contain all future development inside the current metropolitan boundaries.  This would reduce car travel and help create a more sustainable city with lower energy consumption and emissions, and also I think, create more lively and socially sustainable communities in the difficult, warmer years ahead.

What's needed is a planning authority witha plan that is kept in place by unshakable government policy, and we don't need bigger councils in order for that to happen, only political will!   The State government clearly needs to put more steel into the planning of metropolitan Melbourne so that growth can be contained within the current boundaries for many years to come.

However there are still good reasons in my opinion, for an Inquiry into Local Government. My recent experience is limited to the City of Port Phillip and I have no direct experience with councils in the growing outer areas, and as is often the case in discussions like this, there is a shortage of the hard data that would permit intelligent decisions to be made about how best to reform things. Since the Kennett amalgamations, councils have become corporatized and their staffs have become much more professional and much larger.  They needed to be bigger of course, as the council areas became larger after amal-gamation, but they've grown far beyond their logical size. 

It is a paradox that despite their larger size, they have also become much less efficient.  Whenever I meet an architect, within minutes the conversation turns to the complexity of dealing with council planners and how long everything takes.  It's not just in Melbourne, it's the same in Sydney, and it's not just big and controversial projects.

I have a young architect friend, for example, who wanted to extend his house in East St Kilda for his growing family.  I saw what he proposed, it fitted into the street-scape, respected the neighbours, complied with all the regulations and was, in my opinion good design. But in the end it took Port Phillip Council over 12 months to approve this simple house extension.  Recourse to VCAT wasn't an option as there was an 18 months delay in getting a hearing.

Architect friends tell me this is not uncommon whatever the council, and of course it's even more of a joke if the project is politically prominent. On current indications it will end up having taken four or five years simply to decide what goes on the Triangle site in St Kilda! 

Now it's not just the frustration that all this entails.  Multiply the delay in the house alteration in East St Kilda by all of Melbourne and put a price on the time and energy that is wasted, and the economic opportunities that are lost by all these delays.  In an understandable reaction to situations like the one I've described, it is rumoured that the new planning legislation proposes to go to the opposite extreme and exempt house alterations like this from needing any approvals at all, in which case the planners will only have themselves to blame!

The planning changes proposed are still in course of preparation so it's all the more reason for an Enquiry to help get some real facts about the size and costs of council staffs, what these delays are costing and what might be done to improve things; facts and costs are needed to inform the knee jerk reactions of the Bailleau government.

The main reason why planning matters are taking so long is the overlarge, professional bureaucracies that have flourished since Kennett created room for their growth. And make no mistake, these are bureaucracies with a strong sense of entitlement that are sure they know better than the community.  One senior planning officer told me recently that his main task was to protect the public from themselves.  It's the nanny state rampant and it's getting harder and harder for architects, citizens and the part time elected councillors to get the full time planning officers to speed things up; and all too often councillors get enrolled to support and justify this unnecessarily lengthy process.  

The current situation is clearly inefficient and indulgent, whether my diagnosis overstates the case or not. The big question of making drastic and overall changes to reduce the size of entrenched council bureaucracies (and the rates!) is too complex to contemplate without a formal evidence-based Government Enquiry to unearth the facts and follow up on the logic of the situation. Without a thorough going enquiry I suspect that streamlining councils will end up being delayed another twenty years until the inevitable climate changes will force our society to become more sustainable.   We don't need council sponsored free golf lessons for beginners to start with!

So the obvious conclusion is to leave council boundaries alone, to strengthen and improve the overall planning of Melbourne to accommodate population growth within the current boundaries, and to have a wide-ranging Enquiry into Local Government to make it both more efficient and less expensive. But will anyone listen?

Don Gazzard
March 2012