Let’s put the local back into local government

Local government has the potential to be the most democratic form of government within the Australian system. They respond to the immediate concerns of residents in their territory. They are accessible to residents and can better understand the concerns of their community, as it is much easier to connect with councilors and council staff. In addition to simply voting for an elected representative, residents can have regular input on issues between election cycles.

However, local governments are increasingly powerless to respond to the concerns of their constituents. This is particularly evident in Western Sydney.

According to the 2016 census, the region has five of the ten most populous LGAs in the state, which are expected to house more than 3 million people by 2030. Responding to the population boom requires meticulously planned infrastructure and housing.

As part of the ‘Metropolis of Three Cities’ master plan, the NSW State Government has overseen much of the new development planning. Additionally, if a planned development satisfies building codes, the development does not need to first go through local council approval, under ‘exempt and compliant development’ rules. This deprives local councils in Western Sydney of the power to respond to the demands of their constituents.

In late 2021, the New South Wales government announced a number of policy adjustments to ensure more sustainable housing under former Planning Minister Rob Stokes’ Sustainable Planning Agenda. The proposal would have ensured that all new homes had light-coloured roofing, a change that would reduce the urban heat island effect by an estimated drop of 2.4°C in Sydney and up to 4°C in western Sydney, in particular.

The NSW Government has also announced a new State of Place Environmental Design and Planning Policy (SEPP) which would introduce requirements for electronic vehicle charging stations in apartment buildings. and minimum tree cover requirements for new housing developments.

The Western Sydney Regional Councils Organization made submissions on the plan which raised specific points regarding other areas for improvement relating to district heating, energy use, thermal performance and management garbage.

However, Anthony Roberts dropped out of Design and Place SEPP when he took over as Planning Minister earlier this year. At the time, it was reported that this change was due to pressure from property developers. Abandon design and place The SEPP has been a slap in the face for local councils in Western Sydney who have contributed to the design of the policy and demonstrates their sensitivity to the whims of state government.

New South Wales government project funding also disempowers local councils. Earlier this year, the NSW government announced its WestInvest scheme, securing $2 billion for community projects in Sydney’s west, including $400 million between its 15 local councils. While the investment is sorely needed, the grant model means the NSW government tailors Western Sydney’s development according to its plans – not advice – undermining the relationship between local governments and their constituents.

Take urban heat: if a council in Western Sydney wants to tackle urban heat in its LGA, piecemeal projects will not suffice. Meaningful change requires comprehensive local policy and state regulation in multiple sectors. However, the piecemeal approach allows the state to gain publicity and weight from funding projects that address the symptoms of poor planning, rather than tackling the urban design and climate change that cause the heat.

For example, in late 2021, Penrith City Council received a $1 million grant from the NSW Government’s Greening Our City program to plant an additional 5,000 trees in streets and parks. Ground cover is an important tool for combating urban heat, but fails to address underlying causes such as dark roofs.

Project-based funding is also problematic for workers who may have short-term contracts that offer no job security after the grant money dissipates. In contrast, a properly funded local government system could secure permanent employment for its local workforce, without the state government verifying the projects.

Local councils in Western Sydney are doing a great job. There are countless coping strategies underway in LGAs to address issues directly affecting area residents, such as urban heat. However, they do not have enough control over the planning of their own LGAs and this means that the councils’ connection to their community remains neglected and (more significantly) underutilized.