On Local Government, Amalagamation, Regional Councils, Or Status Quo,
The Council of the Future Report (December 2013) released Jan 2014 was commissioned by the SA Local Government Association, for The Local Government Association and is addressed to them.
No surprises then that it is recommends more power for them and more work and more funding for them.
It pronounces loudly that it wants to keep the local in local government but if the recommendations of the report are implemented it will give the LGA a supervisory role over the State’s Local Governments and reduce elected councilors to information gathering and rubber stamping the LGA guided regional policies.
The recommendations set out to by-pass the statutory requirement of local motivation for amalgamation of councils by setting up Regional Councils. Instead of amalgamation of councils it provides the option of an overarching regional council. The report states that this should not be seen as a fourth tier of government but it seeks Regional Council autonomy to the exclusion of local councils and the capacity for imposition of Regional Council Rates in addition to current local government, State and Federal Taxes. They may not want to call it a fourth tier of government, but it will look and quack like one.
The report “expresses concern” that many local governments think that things are fine and need no changes and denigrates or ignores that point of view. In the promotion of its agenda it confuses and fails to define what it means when it claims “widespread support” or “significant support”.
This interpretation of data to support its agenda occurs throughout. For instance, in a summary table it says that there was widespread support for a Mayoral candidate to have already served on Council, but in the body it says there was only some support for this and some support for the idea of bringing in new blood.
It self serves by making guessed assumptions about a lack of future support and funding from State and Federal government as a reason for building the LGA castle and funding base.
Contrary to the established purpose and use of maps and plans to clearly set out information, It provides maps of overlaid areas of regional responsibility that are calculated to appear confusing so that they can reason that their agenda will provide themselves as the solution.
They say they have a vision, for new forms of local community governance. They want the law to change so that regional super councils can have autonomy without control of local government. They want Councils to be able to irrevocably hand their powers to the regional super council. It talks about achieving economies of scale, But sets out no reasons why this should be so, nor addresses post amalgamation reports from elsewhere that show such predictions are almost always illusory.
It says councils have to cede authority and autonomy. It requires annual reports by Councils and disparages elections as the proper control. Regional Councils would set the paradigms and elected local government would have to work within them.
The report says that they “did not receive a great deal of feedback as to how councils will need to expand” their role but they have set about doing it anyway.
They want to become agents of the Federal Government (page 36). They want to give the right to vote on regional decision making to non-elected people (page40).
They don’t like that some councils don’t report to them now (page42) and want to bring them in to line.
They want elected councils and their newly appointed unelected voting members to be information gatherers for the regional council which will itself decide whether the council or a community group will be the decision makers and management of community projects (page 46)
They want the regional plan not to “just be a folder” of Local Government plans, the Regional Council Plan will dictate and override local government plans.
The regional DAP will have autonomy. They say “logically there would be no need to ensure that each council was represented on the [regional] DAP” (page 52)
They say it is “evident that robust leadership from the LGA will be pivotal” and recommend that they, the LGA be engaged to set up a joint review with the State Government and the LGA and convene “a series of forums”
Who is going to pay for all of this work that they have had no feed back or request from ratepayers that says that it is required?
It is an exercise in castle building at the expense of local autonomy.
It is a fallacy that ever increasing economies of scale exist in the provision of goods and services by local government. Get too big and council economies go down.
Economies of scale are reached at around Thirty Thousand people. Gawler will be that by itself very soon.
The optimum population size for local government differs for metropolitan, urban, rural and remote communities. Analysis with omitted variables (demographic/geographic characteristics) mean that the impact of population size is overestimated. Population density, remoteness, ethnicity, indigenous status, age structure, non-resident service provision, climate and terrain are not strict per capita costs.
There are differentiated economies of scale. Intensive customer-oriented services generate lesser economies of scale than capital intensive services, such as water and sewerage, where benefits can be obtained from spreading fixed costs across a larger number of service points
Australian National University Publications reveal important principles of good government requiring that:
Goods and services be administered at the lowest level feasible within the national interest: permitting a close match to the preferences of the people.
Boundaries are defined by the serviced area for the goods or service to allow for a matching of local demand and supply.
Economies of scale are implemented if it really does cost less when provided by a single provider rather than separate smaller ones
A mechanism exists to solve inter-government overlaps and gaps, to avoid under or over provision of goods or services
Responsibility of different government bodies be transparent and obvious to avoid buck passing.
Evaluations conducted post-amalgamation of other local governments have almost invariably reported that the economic benefits actually experienced have been considerably lower than those estimated. In other words they nearly always get it wrong.
It is better to look at co-operation on a service by service basis. There is no need to amalgamate Local Government to achieve economies. Natural resource management and economic development may be better dealt with across local or State boundaries by regional bodies. High theorising is no use. Costable proposals are needed for the individual services where it is said there will be cost savings.
The problem of over government has long been identified, States have seen power flow to Canberra since federation and it is not coming back. But as the States are not going away people who are looking for efficiencies (as well as powershifting to Canberra) turn to Local Government.
Costs do vary with population size but only to a certain level when it becomes more expensive again. 30,000 people seems to be a target lower figure but it is very clear that there are too many variables and so each case is a separate one.
Local government is elected and provides participation in process, and equity in outcomes. It provides tangible support, ‘on the ground’, for the programs and policies of other levels of government, including regional programs.
The already centralised nature of Australian Federation means that amalgamation of local governments is not a good strategy for building stronger regional capacity. We need to maintain the proximity, the closeness of local government. Regional capacity can be built on strong, responsive local-local government. This becomes more important as the Federal Government continues to centralise power to Canberra by giving direct grants to local areas on conditional terms, imposing their power and bypassing the autonomy of the States.
The loss of the proximity of local government, the closest tier of government to each of us is, is a grave loss.
A northern Super Council will have elected members who are further away from their electors, who, with the best will in the world are less able to be responsive to their community and more reliant on the bureaucracy. A regional council will simply be a defacto super council. If it goes ahead we will have to have more and more “ratepayer groups”. Right now our smaller local government is really just a large elected ratepayer group which ratepayers speak to and which listens. Local government is good because it is small and responsive.
In other amalgamations the predictions of financial economic benefits were just plain wrong. This was only found out after close and responsive local government was lost.
Some potential economies of scale must exist, they should be identified, and can be achieved by appropriate district co-operation.
Gut feelings that bigger is going to be better are not fact. History has shown that there are too many variables for accurate theoretical predictions.
The only certainty is that the local, will be removed from local government.
On Local Government, Amalagamation, Regional Councils, Or Status Quo,
Writer and Commentator.