Persistence is starting to pay off on the government’s quest for local council reform.
Persistence is starting to pay off on the government's quest for local council reform.
The state government has copped a lot of flak for its long-running efforts to reform the third tier of government.
At the time of the state election, its efforts were generally judged to be a failure, after a backlash from local authorities that were resistant to change.
But the tone of the debate has changed markedly, with a broad acceptance that change is inevitable.
The Robson review helped encourage a shift in thinking, as did Premier Colin Barnett’s insistence that change was coming – at least for metro councils – whether they liked it or not.
The debate now is about the best shape for reform.
Local Government Minister Tony Simpson has outlined his preferred reform model, with the number of councils across the metropolitan area to be halved to 15.
His announcement this week included what appears to be sensible fine-tuning of the boundaries.
He won plaudits from councils that like the shape of things to come.
Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt, for instance, said: “This was the kind of sensible boundary reform based around natural communities of interest that the residents of Fremantle were calling for”.
Others will grizzle about the planned boundaries, but even the critics have given up trying to cling to the current outdated structure.
That’s an enormous shift from the type of debate we heard one or two years ago.
Mr Simpson acknowledged this shift as he praised the work being done by mayors, presidents and CEOs behind the scenes to progress reform.
“They’ve opened their minds to plan for the future of their districts,” he said.
Next step in the process is for the Local Government Advisory Board to gather input and make final recommendations to the minister by the middle of next year.
The Local Government Managers Association has welcomed the proposed reforms but also pointed out some of the challenges along the way.
In particular, local councils face at least nine further months of uncertainty before their future becomes clearer.
The best response is to ensure local councils have a good understanding of how to best implement and deliver the planned changes.
The state government should also start thinking about the next phase of reform, beyond changes to local council boundaries.
The ultimate goal is not just to have larger councils – it’s to have a system that delivers economies of scale, allows councils to build expertise and efficiency, and deliver a more consistent planning and approvals system.
Another goal should be to lift the standard of governance in the local council sector. That means educating elected councillors so they focus less on operational matters and more on strategic leadership.
Having a much larger population in each local government area should help this process – it would make it easier for elected councillors to escape the clutches of small, noisy and unrepresentative minorities.
As Business News has noted in the past, these aspects of local council reform have barely been mentioned in a debate dominated by mergers.
The other aspect that has fallen out of the limelight is the lack of reform in rural Western Australia, where the case for mergers is far more compelling than in metropolitan Perth.
WA has 138 local authorities; 108 of these are in rural WA, and 36 have fewer than 1,000 residents.
If Mr Barnett has true resolve, he will confront the Nationals and demand that the reform process extend beyond the metropolitan area.