Tuesday, December 16, 2014

When is temporary really temporary?

Once again (15 December, 2014) Hobart City Council Aldermen have taken yet another leap of faith on a planning matter, and approved the first stage of transitional planning amendments for the site on the Hobart waterfront known as Macquarie Point, contained in the Sullivans Cove Planning Scheme.  You may know it as the old Railyards.  It is also known in planning circles as Activity Area 3.0.

Tellingly, this leap of faith was in the absence of even the sketchiest of draft Master Plans for the site.

The planning technocracy argued that to wait until even March of 2015 for a draft Master Plan will lock up the site from all human activity, despite also their contra advice to the Development and Environment Services Committee that development applications for temporary works could be lodged as needed. 

So anyone who argues that festivals, or tram renovation or men’s sheds or art displays would be excluded between now and March, when a draft Master Plan is first expected to emerge from its chrysalis, clearly has a comprehension deficit.  Seriously, it’s as if people have never heard of delegated planning authority for certain minor uses and activities.  Oh, but that was considered too hard to do, even for three months or six months, while the draft Master Plan starts to gently fan its drying wings prior to taking flight in the area of public consultation.

This now means that controls on heights, landscaping and uses have all now been put aside or watered down.  So where will any capacity of comparison of past, present and future reside?

It has been claimed that temporary buildings will only be temporary for 5 years and this will be “set in stone”.  Forgive me, but given the planning, building and plumbing requirements for a building, who would spend any money on a development if they knew it would be removed in five years?  Of course, extensions would be sought.  Hobart City Council has a proud history of granting extensions for all sorts of things.

This is where a little history of Tasmania’s economy and state of governance has to be taken into account, as there’s a lot of awful historical buildings in Hobart (and we’re not talking Georgian sandstone here) that has persisted through the preservative effects of economic depression.

Great plans, lots of fanfare, pollie photo ops, and then the Australian economy cycles down again.  Or some developer tries to seize the planning debate with a state of the art convention centre and hotel and we all get locked up in adversarial planning tribunal proceedings and nothing is eventually achieved, other than the economy resurging from all the fees paid to lawyers and planners and experts.

And given the state of the Tasmanian and Australian economy, who is to say any development needing significant planning discretion will not be promoted by a government wanting to be seen to be “open for business” well before the sealing of any Master Plan of the rail yards as a key site?  Mind you, “open for business” is getting a whole new meaning in Tasmania lately (as the Cenotas proponents are finding out), but even so, the risks are enormous of yet another convention centre/marina/hotel/time-shared apartments development horror when a government is desperate for a good news story.

And give the quality of governance that comes to real estate development by Tasmanian governments, who is to say what uses will or will not prejudice the future long term development of the area? 

(Watch and learn, oh gentle reader, when the impending kerfuffle over the Mawson Hut Museum development becomes public as its temporary planning permissions expires and it is made to shift off site over at Key Site 5.  I sense an impending media offensive against the Council’s current refusal to extend the lease beyond the original temporary time limits.)

Back at the Railyards site, pounds to peanuts, there will be significant resistance when uses (for this, read car parks) that people want become entrenched, and then similarly, are attempted to be moved on in favour of installing, say, a cycle way connection.

And some of you with very long memories may remember the planning concerns that were raised over the wheat silos (later converted to the Silos Apartments that from the front bear little resemblance to their earlier incarnation, perhaps being better suited to the Gold Coast or the Toaster of Sydney Harbour infamy).  Anyone remember the site development plan that was proffered by the developer then?  Leading planning proponents decried its content, as it simply provided a somewhat (at the time) illiterate rubber stamp for what was built on the site.

There is such a history of getting to wrong on the Hobart waterfront.

And it is not as if permits cannot be given by delegation to ensure land contamination investigation and decontamination works to go ahead as needed (that would be a far simpler amendment to the Sullivans Cove Planning Scheme).  This is not an argument for onerous bureaucracy, rather for developing a streamlined best practice process badly needed for all of Tasmania’s planning processes.

Ensuring appropriate planning considerations are in place before any significant development on the site is a laudable aim – indeed it is essential that planning controls guide any development proposals.  But is removing existing planning controls in the way being suggested prior to even the comfort of a draft Master Plan represent the best way to go?

And here’s another thing.  If you have a site that is needing a new look, and you’re on the public record as saying you’re all about public consultation, why then would you not also want any public consultation (people actually meeting face to face) on these sorts of transitional changes?  A three week consultation period is being suggested via websites and the old analog of newspaper advertising.  But no public meeting, oh no, we don’t want that.  Which is curious, given the exhaustive public meetings have been held so far on what is wanted to happen to the site.

Why do I smell Ministerial intervention in the offing?  It happened recently when the MPDC was warned off by the Minister over proposing universities from around the world becoming tenants on the site.  Is this what is holding up the draft Master Plan?

So here’s the thing.

A good planning process would indicate having even the sketchiest of a draft Master Plan in place before deciding to ditch any existing planning controls.  Having a draft Master Plan in place would give a deal of comfort over the relevance of or retaining of, any existing planning controls.  Right now, a decision has been made akin to shining a weak torch around a massive warehouse.  You see some things, but not the whole of the area in context.

Yes, it is acknowledged that the preferred future for the area is now for mixed use development opportunities consistent with the Macquarie Point Development Corporation Act 2012.  No issues with that.  However, does that mean we should water down the Activity Area 3.0 provisions before the final uses can be settled on?  And given the quantity and quality of changes to the provisions, isn’t this in effect a de facto draft Master Plan?  So what is holding up the cutting and pasting of a draft Master Plan document?

Surely after all the public consultation that has occurred, the Macquarie Point Development Corporation should be able to formulate a set of draft Master Plan site activity statements that reflect preferred heights, uses and activities, etc that have emerged?  It is not as if they don’t have access to planning advice from the expertise of Hobart City Council.

After all, it is the Hobart City Council’s officers who have drafted up the transitional planning changes – imagine if they had been able to devote such energies into assisting the workers at the MPDC?  It is not as if there is a demand for a fully fledged site development plan – that is something that should emerge well after the planning reassessment is done and dusted and a Master Plan is finalised.

What does concern me is that in the absence of planning controls, development applications that are meant to be temporary will exceed the sorts of heights and setbacks that will fit well in the area, and end up becoming permanent fixtures. 

Heights and setbacks against what is recognised as the edge of the Cenotaph (the “topographical wall”) or against existing heritage buildings were controlled but now, if a development application is lodged, and we know the sorts of discretions asked for by various of developers, what happens then when a significant discretion is asked for, because after all, “no one complained about the temporary buildings”?

What does concern me is that in the absence of real income for the site (given the budget model for the MPDC is a zero budget by the end of its stewardship, that car parking will become a de facto income stream and become a permanent feature in the absence of any Master Plan statements on permitted, discretionary or prohibited uses.  Carparking become a permitted used for 5 years, otherwise then is “discretionary”. 

What does concern me is that uses currently deemed “discretionary”, such as an arts and cultural centre, research and development centre, offices, markets and suchlike, are now going to be deemed temporary uses for five years or otherwise prohibited. So tell me, whose going to invest with such a limitation, and then do we then see after five years no proposals forthcoming, so a Master Plan is written that excludes them out? 

Yes, public art requires no permission, as neither does land decontamination works.  So are we looking forward to five years of decontamination works screened by public art as other proposals are scared off by the lack of certainty and having to jump the hoops of the now changed objectives and performance criteria?

What does concern me is that landscaping controls are being weakened, such that the careful control of landscaping at the entry point to the City of the Brooker Highway-Davey Street-Tasman Highway nexus will be lost.  It was hard enough in the past to get landscaping controls to try and cover up the bare walls and wire security fence of the now disused Ports Cool Store under the now-defunct planning controls. 

(Ah, I remember one now dead Alderman insisting the Ports Cool Store building would be in use for many, many years, it was inconceivable it would no longer be used for purpose.  And that was only twelve or so years ago!)

What does concern me is that transport is no longer a prime use of the site – so what happens to cycling?  What happens to light rail opportunities?  What happens to having a tram connection between the City and the Royal Botanical Gardens?  Because transport is downgraded, does it preclude using the site for cycleways, light rail, etc.  What possible future uses are now being written out of the final Master Plan?

What does concern me is the downgrading of importance of access to the working port.  What is exactly meant by “adequate” access to the working port?  Has anyone any idea of the crucial role transport to the working port plays in Tasmania’s $187 million dollars a year plus Antarctic and Southern Oceans industry?  Or the burgeoning resupply and tourism benefits of the cruise ship industry?

And what does really concern me is that there is no guarantee that the relevant careful planning controls built up with experience and knowledge, which have had significant support through the public consultation process over the years, but will no longer be in existence, will make their way back into future planning documents (ie the Master Plan, the Site Development Plan).  Yes, the site will change in its uses and you match planning accordingly, but not this way.  Not in this “arse-about” process.

I can’t say it’s been a good move.  In fact, I voted against it and I suggest that sadly I’ll have the pleasure of saying “I told you so” in a decade’s time, and not for the first time, over planning issues around the waterfront.

So have a read of the report, make your own mind up, and ask yourself the question.  Is this a good planning process for one of the most significant development sites in our City, give Tasmania’s economic and political history?  Will we get the good outcomes the public has been building up its hopes for?

Agenda meeting 8 December 2014 Item 6.2.1

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Effectiveness and efficiency – is that what local government is really about?

The Minister for Local Government, Peter Gutwein, and the Property Council’s Brian Wightman, are leading the charge for a more effective, efficient and amalgamated local government sector in Tasmania.  Minister Gutwein says he doesn’t have a pre determined outcome but wants to start the discussions (but only with a select few and on a regional basis).  Neither is the government willing to push things.  He wants the most competitive local government sector possible (competitive with what is not defined).  Whiteman says the costs of local government are too high and Property Council polling says there are too many councils.  Meanwhile, newly elected President of the Local Government Association of Tasmania, Mayor Barry Jarvis, says most councils are in favour of resource sharing rather than amalgamations.

What sense can be made of these statements? 

That amalgamation won’t happen.  The level of trust and co-operation is just not there to sustain this top down policy process, especially as the ordinary ratepayer is being excluded out of the most important discussion that affects their homes and communities.

That local government will continue to face erosion of its roles and responsibilities over time by State government policy fiat (water, sewerage, planning – what’s next?) and increasing amounts of debt as funding reduces in real terms.

That representation of local communities will continue to decline as Councils steadily shed their elected members each time the Local Government Board reviews a Council, and as the problem of population based remuneration of elected members is not addressed.

If Property Council President Tim Johnston says investors and developers in Tasmania are forced to play by 29 different sets of rules, structures and roles, making investment in the State unworkable, then he needs to start examining what the problem really is.

Let’s turn this discussion around.

Rather than ask whether we have too many Councils, how about we ask what it is we have in common?  Have a look at the table below of roles and responsibilities.

If we visit a locality, what will be different?

If we live/work/play around the State, is provided to everyone who uses it?

Community halls

Heritage buildings, infrastructure

Parks and gardens



Place-based demographic needs (multicultural, LGBTI, elderly, children, )

Arts programs


Streetscape retail

Place-specific village centres

Animal management

Local place-specific planning (soils, geography, landscape, etc)

Place-based representation and lobbying
Homelessness (urban central council areas)


(feel free to add to this list)



Roads and footpaths, parking




NBN and other communications networks

Health, hospitals, preventative care


Strategic State development projects generating wealth and income into the State Budget

Planning Scheme adjudication



Primary Industry development and management (forestry, mining, farming, fishing, etc)

Industrial and Service development and management (workplace health and safety, wages, etc)

Police, Ambulance, Fire and Emergency Services

Consumer Advice services

Justice services

Electoral services

World Heritage and National Parks

Environmental Controls and management

Population growth strategy

Quarantine – island biosecurity

Biodiversity programs (Parks & Wildlife)

Hunting, shooting, fishing, recreation


(feel free to add to this list)


So here’s two questions from the list.

Firstly, if we have particular things that our communities do, why should the State be involved (other than for reasons of public safety and equity?  Are they then not natural roles for a local government?

Secondly, if there are so many common roles and responsibilities, why isn’t State taking these on?

I know, I know, historical events and financial necessities and all that, has led us to this place.  Local government we have today in Tasmania is as a consequence of colonial and State government neglect of services and cost shifting.  Be we don’t all live and die in a bark hut in one place today.  We are (mostly) people who live, work, and play around the State.

So isn’t it time the State government grew up and took on its adult responsibilities? 

The Australian Constitution is pretty clear as to what the State should be doing.  And whatever their ulterior motives the Property Council is by default illustrating that the system is broken.  It’s just that their prescription for Tasmania economic and social ills, less representation, few councils, doesn’t equate to less rates and charges, less regulation.  One would have thought that the debacle of water and sewerage reform would have illustrated just what sort of Pandora’ financial/asset box is likely to be opened up.

Amalgamation is pointless in addressing Tasmania’s economic and social woes.  It just shifts the boundaries and makes the inherited problems bigger.  The Glamorgan-Spring Bay-Break’O Day Council’s suggested merger report is illustrative of Tasmania’s regional problems.  Most liked the concept, but there were no real financial savings.

Governance change can be used to address Tasmania’s economic and social woes – it will be a longer, messier process (and don’t politicians hate this) but it will provide clearer lines of responsibility and a revelation of the real flows of income and expenditure in Tasmania.

Lift the lid on the pork barrel of local government finances and you’ll find a rancid mix of State Grants Commission funding, federal grants programs, State grant programs and ratepayer funding.  And if you stir this mix up to add it to the larger barrels of amalgamated Councils, there is no guarantee of a sweeter product.  Larger councils equals less financial disability under the funding guidelines, which ultimately means less money coming in.  Combine this with a Federal government slashing funding to local government programs and freezing CPI increases, and you can see a financial squeeze coming on. 

The Property Council is complaining about the number of elected people, saying there will be savings if there are less elected.  Let’s examine this carefully – ask your local Council just what percentage of the budget is allocated to elected members.  I’ll think all of you will find the amount paid is risible for the time and goodwill and efforts put in, and more so in regional rural areas where travel times between communities is upwards of two or more hours.  Information communication technology would help this but this is still a long way off for much of Tasmania.  Lordy, my phone drops out in parts of Hobart!

What is really being said is that the Property Council dislikes elected people because elected people today are more likely to question whether what the Property Council wants as to whether it is in the best interests of their communities and how they’d like to see their communities evolve.  No longer is local government peopled by men of business (and I say, men, deliberately).

Larger Councils equals less local community representation and no guarantee that elected people will be full time councillors under the current allowance regime.

And I make no bones about it.  If Councils are amalgamated with no change in the roles and responsibilities of State and local government, your rates will not drop.  They didn’t in 1993.  The cost of water increased after reforms.  Your rates will not drop.


The local government we need in Tasmania will be as a consequence of speaking to the unspeakable – the State actually taking on its Constitutional responsibilities and local government becoming a place-based entity that represents only local concerns.  Now which State government has the guts for that?

Monday, November 24, 2014

How do we value parkland?

Tonight at Hobart City Council (24 November, 2014) we discussed a draft Management Plan for Queenborough Oval, that will be going out for community consultation in 2015.  The motion agreed at Council was amended to include information being given to Aldermen on the income and expenditure of running the Oval.

Now here’s the thing. 
How do we really value the cost to Councils of running recreation and parks premises? 
Do we stick to income/expenses/depreciation/maintenance accounting, or is it time for a new methodology that takes into account the real value to the City and its people?

As a bit of background to see what got me thinking on this, have a look at the draft Management Plan on the Council’s Parks committee agenda.  It’s not a long read, and much of it is in easy layman language.  http://www.hobartcity.com.au/Council/Council_Meetings/Parks_and_Customer_Services_Committee

Particularly, have a look at the map on page 35 of Agenda item 9.  You’ll note that there is a linkage between Bicentennial Park and the Queenborough Oval facility. 
Let me tell you, this is the first time we’ve had a set of consultants think outside the boundary in making such a connection– between a sports ground and a parkland in suggesting a draft management plan.  It really impressed me that these consultants were thinking not just inside the sports ground, but its value to the community surrounding it.
And, and this is the really exciting bit, they looked at it in the context of where it sat in the City and what it's connections were.

And this is a real change that reflects a connection between bushland use and sports recreation grounds.  It re-defines the value of Hobart’s parks and recreation grounds as not just stand alone facilities.  Sport, although a team effort, is also an individual pursuit.  Bushland, although a conservation space is also a recreation place.

The value of bushland linkages for sports grounds also flows into the surrounding suburbs in terms of residential amenity.  How, you might ask?  Well, here’s a story.

Cleaning around the council office prior to the election, I came across a panoramic photo of Hobart from Porter Hill to Mt Wellington and an itsy-bitsy copy of a Certificate of Merit from the Royal Australian Planning Institute. In the 8 November 2000 Tasmanian Awards for Planning Excellence, this certificate in the category of Community Based Planning was presented to the Regional Skyline Group for its “Draft Policy – Management of Landscapes of Natural and Cultural Significance”. 

Memory lane city!  Over fifteen years ago I was involved with a number of citizens across Tasmania in promoting the idea to the State Government of the importance of bushland and undeveloped skylines in planning matters.  (Kay McFarlane, now Alderman on Clarence City Council, was a key and keen driver of the group.  She faced a far worse situation in Clarence with insensitive subdivisions.) 

From this activity a significant document dated February 2000, Planning Guidelines: Urban Skylines and Hillfaces, was developed through the Urban Skylines and Hillfaces Committee in the old State Department of Primary Industry, Water and Environment.  Although alas, following governments saw fit it ignore it, it worked some magic in its day by providing a professional and technical set of arguments for keeping hillfaces, and especially in Hobart.

Fortunately, or not, depending how you look at it, around the same time the development of Tolman’s Hill subdivision provided the “Empress Towers” moment to argue for conserving Porter’s Hill (now Bicentennial Park) skyline when the Dorney family tried to develop most of it for suburban housing in 2001.

Here was me, still wet behind the ears as a new Aldermen, and trying to argue for some form of a Bushland Fund that would buy up the last remaining hillfaces and bushlands of Hobart that had yet to fall to the developer’s bulldozers and their architects’ penchant for stucco ghettos and MacMansions of the kind you see at Nicholas Drive in Sandy Bay. 

How to argue it? 

There was, given the makeup of Council at the time, very few people really au fait with the ideas and importance of biodiversity at the elected level, let alone simpatico.  Could they be convinced why keeping land for plants, insects, reptiles, birds and marsupials versus the possibilities of increased money in the coffers via subdivision was a good idea?  Based on arguing the case for nature in other development applications, no. 

Yet, based on arguing the case for aesthetics and how this translates in improved property prices, this curiously proved the way to get some good policy in place. 

In short, the confluence of the awfulness of Tolman’s Hill development on the skyline, with the policy work done by the community activists of the Regional Skyline Group, and being able to be around the table to argue sufficient support for keeping skylines via a Bushland Fund, all resulted in a largely uninterrupted bush skyline from Porters Hill to Mt Nelson.

You really don’t see this unless you’ve taken the odd ferry trip on the River Derwent, and then the full majesty of this policy outcome is revealed.  You only have to listen to the comments of visitors from overseas how impressed they are that Hobart has kept so much of its skylines as bushland.

What does this mean in terms of the Queenborough Oval?  Well, without the work of past activism and all that flowed from it, it would mean that the linkage between bushland and sportsground would not be possible.  It would mean more of the Mt Nelson/Tolman’s Hill death by a thousand subdivision cuts.  If there were any remnant bushland, it would be way over there, up the hill, over the other side, out of reach other than by car and then only for the very fit.  It would mean that local residents would not be out working in the local Bushcare Groups and making connections with their local community.  The experience of walking this linkage, or mountain bike riding it, would have been lost. 

For the surrounding suburbs of Mt Nelson and Sandy Bay, their quality of living, their residential amenity, will be immeasurably improved by having access to both the Park and the sportsground in a single linkage. 

This is the sort of living environment that people pay very high prices for in Sydney and Melbourne, let alone other places in the world.  And consider this – this sort of living is ten to fifteen minutes by car (at most) to the centre of the City.

I argued years ago that people perceived access to bushland for recreation as valuable in their selection of a home for raising their families.  Having such access would make Mt Nelson and Sandy Bay more desirable, and therefore would improve property prices – and from there, improve the AAV and therefore more rates to be gained for Hobart.  Adding this linkage will again improve the perception of the quality of life for local residents.  Those in Sandy Bay will now have access to bushland via the sports ground linkage that previously would only be possible by negotiating a complicated series of roads by car.

So how to value this in our Annual Report? 

Purchasing Porter Hill is listed as a debt to be paid off, an asset to be managed and depreciated.  Queenborough Oval is listed as a community sports ground whose maintenance appears to exceed its income (like so many recreational facilities).  Arguing the case on old financial methodology means either descending into gated parks and sportsgrounds for the elite few who could pay for entry or accepting running at a financial loss as a bad thing.  If both had to be run at a financial breakeven, first of all, how could you do it if the only value used is monetary, and secondly, would it mean that only those who could afford would have access?

I’d argue that it’s time for a new methodology in valuing parklands and sports grounds. 

The costs are financial and apparent.  The benefits are intangible, not easily quantified in financial terms.  How do we value amenity?  I’m talking about more than the old triple bottom line accounting here.  Access to facilities that improve mental and physical health can be measured in terms of less sick days and less demand for medical health facilities and services.  Access to walking means improved health outcomes, especially where there is a sense of adventure and wonder, a creation of mental contentment in the surrounds. 

And I believe that if we polled the community on the value of access to both sportsgrounds and bushland, with costs shared across all the municipality to ensure equity of access, we might find that it’s time to change the way we account to the community for managing their parklands and sports recreation grounds.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Planning and governance reform: Will someone have the courage?

For those of you who have any history of involvement in planning in Tasmania, you’ll remember the days when the PLUC came up with the RPDC, PT, state planning policies and the whole suite and box and dice of planning schemes.  Today, mired in the lack of state planning policies, multiple planning schemes and a building and approvals system that the Property Council’s members and others baulk at, seemingly at every turn, reform is once more under way.  Simpler, faster, cheaper...... you’ve picked up the rhetoric by now.

Unfortunately, once more, like the amalgamation debate, we’re going to get it wrong.  Once again, people have headed to the detail without thinking through the foundation of all our ills in Tasmania. 

Must I go over history again (we just do keep forgetting, don’t we) and point out how we’ve developed a system of government and governance that fails the test of a clear division of roles and responsibilities between State and Local Government?

If you follow the principle that difference grows when people are isolated, then it’s easy to understand how Tasmania’s system of government and governance has developed.

Today Tasmania and its many small towns and hamlets are no longer isolated.  Neither do people live and die in the same bark hut they were born in.

The model of local government imposed from the now defunct British Empire is no longer relevant for Tasmania’s aspirations of a place in global society.  It may have been in the early to mid 19th century, but hey! Time to innovate.  Neither is this model capable of moving quickly enough to accommodate change.  The same can be said for the current planning system.  And the futures of the two are intertwined in any governance debate.

Can I make some assumptions here?  That Tasmanians by and large would agree that a sustainable happy community where a people-focused economy respects and values both natural and built assets is a good place to be?  That renewal is welcomed with open debate is a given?  That local competitive advantages are worth leveraging to ensure a population has sound, if not excellent levels of education, social services, and business acumen?  That the economy and society share levels of resilience to enable surfing with edge and some degree of safety the global markets and waves of technology change?  Are these assumptions of what Tasmanians would like too wild?  Do they make an ass out of you and me?  I’ll be positive and say this is where I’m working towards, please feel free to join in at any time.

Now if you follow the principle that values shared is a community created, then the revamping of the Tasmanian planning system is an opportunity to re-imagine Tasmanian governance.

For too long the State has been be-devilled by multiplicity and central neglect as a consequence of financial deficits (and I’m talking from colonial days on, here).  Yes, brought about by historical circumstances but does it have to continue?  Tasmania was only settled to stop the Napoleonic French – dumping the convicts and growing sheep was an afterthought.  The Colonial Chest was stretched by ambitions of Empire and once Buonaparte was safely installed on St Helena, the lid dropped shut and VDL Governors were told to be more financially self-sufficient. 

What followed since has been a litany of economic woes, of overseas loans, of unfunded depreciation of state assets and too-free spending of windfall GST gains.  And in all that time, Tasmania’s response to the population’s demands for services and infrastructure has been to devolve responsibility locally. 

Cost-shifting has created, even with the 1993 amalgamations, 31 sets of governance rules for Tasmania (29 Councils, one State, one Federal government).  And within those 31 sets are multiple, beyond belief multiple, boards and statutory authorities and interpretations of what set of rules and regulations mean what.  And at the local government level we see the creation of three regional bodies based on geography and not a commonality of purpose that creates and implements real innovative change.

Seriously.  This can’t go on.  In any management structure, multiple layers of hierarchy in an organisation create seriously siloing and continual fragmentation.

In planning alone, there are 29 planning authorities with 29 local interpretations and no cohesive overall State planning (other than attempts to get a Statewide Planning Scheme that risks as much fragmentation in application as with the present system).  Our current planning system lack consistency on development, heritage, agricultural land, business and professional services, residential areas, industry, tourism, parking, disability, CBD provisions...must I go on?  With only a 15% commonality between planning schemes, this is totally unsustainable.

And this is where it really hurts us all.  Twenty nine Councils acting as three regions means inevitably 29 different ways of pushing economic, social, environmental and developmental policies.  I have to ask the State government (as it downsizes the newly created State Growth Department) on the matter of a single statewide development policy, just what are you thinking?

So here’s the thing.  If you’re serious about getting governance sorted in Tasmania, start to have some policy balls and think about the table below with some sketch ideas.  The outcome is a cohesive approach across Tasmania of policy development, interpretation, application and review. 

And you know what, if this happened, why, we might then start to dismantle the local government empire that evolved like topsy since the 1820s, and start to have a mature conversation about what local communities and cities really want.

Imagine, a space to have the conversation about reform.  It's not mergers as we know them, that will make a difference for Tasmania’s governance and government. It's the State and local government sitting down to sort out a new way of working and better shared responsibilities.

If we had a State Government that resolved planning into a Statewide Authority, why not also whole of State economic development, waste, roads, stormwater, bridges authorities - it was done for water and sewerage. Get rid of the multiple boards and get a streamline structure in place. Policy and leadership from the top.

So what will local government be left to do?

Implementation and feedback consultation between top and bottom.

Promoting local (business internodes, festivals, tourism, local streetscape programs, bushcare, etc.)

Caring local (elderly, young, disabled, LGBTI, multicultural programs, etc.)

Sharing local (parks, gardens, recreation facilities, etc.)

And yes, keep the local elected people, but seriously, define their roles and functions in the Local Government Act more succinctly.

At least then we won’t have 29 miniature State governments pulling this State apart in 29 different directions after every local government election.  And who knows, then the Feds might find they can’t divide and conquer this island’s people so easily either!





Policy setting, scheme development, review and amendment

Implementation and consultation with local communities to feed back into policy setting and Scheme amendments

Division of functions

Single Planning Authority, with associated Tribunal functions for appeals.

Building and plumbing approvals, local streetscape/landscape reviews as needed.  Councils no longer acting as planning authorities.  Compliance and consultation role only.  Planning consultancy to deal with exceptions or by delegation to ensure compliance.

Particular issues as examples:

Environment: Statewide policies with planning linked to EPA and enforcement processes

Heritage: Planning authority, subsumes Tasmanian Heritage Council functions for policy consistency, Minister with call in powers as safeguard.

Agriculture: Planning authority with policies aligned to Statewide economic agricultural policies

Environment: local councils responsible for monitoring and enforcement of health and safety

Heritage: Listings and rates raised for local maintenance of heritage (aligned to heritage and tourism policies)

Agriculture: manages the interface between local communities and rural areas


Authorised by Alderman Eva Ruzicka, Town Hall, Hobart.

Monday, October 27, 2014

D-Day for local government in Tasmania

As the close of local government polls looms closer to 10am on Tuesday morning, so does D-Day for local government in Tasmania.  A bit dramatic?  No.  The Hon Peter Gutwein, Treasurer, Minister for Planning and Local Government intends to write to all Mayors once the polls are declared to start asking about reforms and how local government can take on more economic responsibilities. 

And he’s going to get it all wrong.

And worse, miss one of the best windows of opportunity for whole of government reform Tasmanians will ever likely support in current times.

What! you ask.  Well, he doesn’t like to use the “A” word, but if you’ve listened to him at the TCCI breakfast and the STCA AGM and a few other venues, you get the feeling that local government’s futures is going to get more complex because it’s the massive elephant in the room that no one wants to challenge, even if it is three more years to the next State election.  Resource sharing only goes so far.  We need different thinking.

Bendigo Pottery anyone?

This is what is getting me irritated about the level of conversation on government reform in Tasmania.  The Minister keeps asking how local government can contribute more to economic projects.  He talks about the State dropping payroll tax, land tax, etc to attract economic projects.  He wants local government to consider waiving rates and charges as well.  As a case in point, apparently the goats grazing at the Inveresk site in Launceston is getting him a tad upset.  And I am too given the amount of taxpayer money invested in the site, so whatever’s gone wrong there in the site’s inability to attract economic projects, it doesn’t need more money thrown at it, which is what the Minister wants to do, and local government to throw a few wads as well.

So if one of his solutions to fixing Tasmania’s economy is to start a race to the bottom with taxes, rates and charges in attempting to attract economic investment to Tasmania, hasn’t he learned any history?  Previous Lib/Lab governments have tried this, with no lasting success.  Bendigo Pottery upped and left once the corporate welfare tap was turned off, and they joined any number of businesses that desert this island when the economic tide turns.  More so since the global economy really got going.

And what would be the impact on local communities?

Doesn’t the Minister realise that local government raises rates and charges to actually pay for the services people use, which are used in the local locality, not for projects at the State level? 

Give him his due, looking from the outside he sees within the Dorset municipality the economic opportunity of six or eight sawmills that could be re-purposed for value-adding timber production.  He wants other Councils to think about what they identify in their own municipal areas to add to Tasmania’s economic success.  Nice thinking, but it’s limited.  Limited to how many are actually in the room contributing to the conversation.

And every time you ask him about his intentions, he just can’t seem to move his head away from keeping Tasmania in its current state of political infrastructure and refusing to consider grasping some innovation as well in political structural reform.  Suggest reform, and all he comments on is how bad amalgamation is.  There’s this image of a Minister’s thinking curled into a political foetal form.

So how does the Minister see the problem?

Okay.  My money is that it’s all in the mindset.  Public policy rule #1: If all you’ve got is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. 

If the only person setting the policy has got an economic rationalist philosophy, and experienced Tasmanian economic realities in Opposition, is influenced by Property Council lobbyists and suchlike and has inherited a healthy political yellow streak/set of scars caused by previous amalgamation failures, then perhaps the Minister isn’t able to really think about reform outside of his government’s political comfort zone. 

Perhaps it’s the fear of loss of government, of losing the levers of government after years in the political wilderness for the Liberal Party of the 20th and 21st century in Tasmania.  Every time a government got near (and here we’re also talking very late 19th century) the ideas of local government reform (albeit in not very original terms), they either lost government or came so close as to have to form a coalition or found reform blocked in the Legislative Council and all that time spent arguing and drafting and lobbying wasted.

I’m not saying local government is that powerful.  Other factors play their larger part.  Yet what is constantly being threatened every time reform is being talked about is something the State government, whether Labor or Liberal, can’t comprehend or take into account or simply ignore every time reform is suggested.  (More on this later in some other blog.)

Reform is needed, but what sort – that’s the question.

What I’m trying to say now is that it’s ridiculous for a State the size of Tasmania to have twenty nine councils, each with their own infrastructure systems and people, and policy programs, when it’s clear from the water and sewerage debacle, it’s possible to have a single system for those functions which reasonably could be managed Statewide.  Times have changed so much from the isolation of the 19th and early 20th centuries for Tasmania’s communities.  Focus on what can be provided on a Statewide basis here.

And I’m not saying get rid of local government either.

I am saying, it’s time for the State to take on its constitutional responsibilities, and let local government get on with what it actually does really well – manage local things.  Community halls, parks, gardens, festivals, facilitating the interaction between local communities and State and Federal departments/politicians, sending through the messages when populations and needs change, so the levers of policy and finance can be adjusted accordingly.

Yes, there is a need for overarching management of infrastructure and policy, but at the ground level there is the need to for some sort of local body able to finetune the messages in meeting community changes and expectations.  That’s where local government can make a real difference. 

And to this extent, if the Hon. Minister Gutwein does anything of merit post the local government elections, it has to be getting all the Mayors and all the elected members of State and local government into one room, sign them all up to Chattam House Rules, and talk about really reforming governance of Tasmania.

Think about the value of a State government actually acting like one.

The Minister may be getting irritated about the Inveresk Rail site but there are bigger wastes of money going on right now all over the State.  It’s the problem of the State not yet having caught up with the 21st century in sorting out what it must be doing, and taking back from local government all the cost-shifted responsibilities of the last two centuries. 

For example, what is the point of having a Department of State Growth if it is disconnected (which it effectively is) from the three regional growth lobbies (Cradle-Coast Authority, Northern Tasmania, Southern Tasmanian Councils) in forming policy and finding opportunities?  And not just economic ones. 

What is the point of asking Mayors in one by one, in isolation, to talk about economic opportunities within their own localities when other factors, social, environmental, just don’t make the cut, or they are so up their necks in the swamp they can’t see opportunities on the nearby shore? 

What is the point of Tasmania’s two major cities working on population growth strategies, and finding themselves having to ask to be at the table, to get data, to share information and work on policy, and then finding bureaucrats and State politicians are ignoring policy suggestions?

What is the point of the State looking away as more and more services and programs are cost-shifted to local government?  What is the point of asking local government to lower its rates and charges in the absence of a coherent statewide assessment of what is possible, or indeed in the absence of any cost-analysis or business case of the real costs of such a policy? 

Local government is fiercely protective of its local community.

I can just imagine the reception the Minister is going to get from individual Mayors when he calls them in post the election and presents his view of their future, and they are actually asked to lower the quality of life of their individual towns and hamlets.  I suspect most Mayors are thinking that it’s some other part of Tasmania that will bear the burden of economic sacrifice.  Perhaps the larger cities will get it in the neck, like they are still getting with the water and sewerage reform?  I’m sure that thought has crossed at least one rural Mayor’s mind on occasion.

Here’s the thing.  Lowering rates and charges on a Council by Council basis in an effort to attract economic opportunities to various municipalities – in effect, picking winners funded by ratepayers - will lead to worse than a race to the bottom for local communities in lowering the capacity to provide services.  It will lead to destructive competition and duplication, if not a perpetuation of the stupidity of rivalry between the North, the South, the North West.

Guess what might happen if instead of an economic race to the bottom, Tasmania’s elected representatives agreed to re-purpose each tier of government?

Would it not be better to say to local government, it’s okay.  Keep your local representatives (you may not need so many in this day and age of IT communications), keep your Mayors, keep your municipal boundaries and town and community halls.  Keep working on what makes your locality so special and attractive to people.  Indeed, you can actually de-amalgamate into township authorities if it makes it easier to devolve highly local responsibilities to smaller more local committees if it’s to your community’s advantage – business case notwithstanding.  (Okay, we’ll talk about allowances and staffing and budgets and insurances later – it’s the ideas we’re riffing on now.)

Because even if the State takes on roads, stormwater, water, sewerage, waste management and other services that can be provided on a Statewide basis, there is still great value in local government in its ability to facilitate and communicate between government and people at a very immediate and intimate level. 

And just because we do it one way now, it doesn’t mean that is the way it has to always be done in the future. For goodness sake, there is life beyond management by committee practices that have been in place since the 16th century!

So yes, you can keep on raising rates and charges for identifiably agreed local services on agreed business-cases, and you’re happy for the State to take on its financial responsibilities for statewide economic development so there is no need for the Federal government to keep on manipulating the relationship between the pair of you.

And imagine, if we could we have that mature conversation, then yes, local government will more likely concede financial and legislative changes as the State takes on more responsibility.  After all, it happened in the years 1990 to 1993 in the first successful reform of local government since 1906, and again in the early naughties in sorting out financial charges between the State and local government over rating and valuation.

Ever thought about the value of synergy for Tasmania?

And what was the secret to the success of reforms that endure?  Rather than the Minister saying what he wants according to how he sees the world and expecting local government to agree, a top-down approach, it is more the case of the bottom up approach that succeeds.  Remember that comment about hammers and nails?  What would happen if we provided a whole box of tools for Ministers and Mayors to play with?  If you have all sorts of ways of seeing the world, problems would then take on different dimensions.

Here’s a suggestion.

What if the Minister decided to get all the Mayors into the room to talk about what economic development means?  Would 29 viewpoints plus his (and a few minders) result in solutions different from how he currently frames it? 

I’m not talking about involve the Local Government Association of Tasmania – it’s history and structure can often get in the way of constructive discussion – it’s so process driven.  And I’m not talking either about using the Premier’s Local Government Council – if that body were of value and treated with any seriousness by the State Government, we’d have had some decent reform discussion ages ago.

Let’s think bigger.

If the Minister got all the elected members into the same room (State and local), then what’s the chances they would all talk together about opportunities and ideas for the State, with the synergies of different viewpoints from around the State.  Especially if you made the rule that no Mayor could talk about their municipality, or Parliamentarian about their electorate (thus avoiding regionalism and pork-barrelling policy behaviour.

And because entry to any discussions would be with agreement of staying away from the gaze of Tasmania’s destructively parochial media, and with Chatham House Rules, and an iron rule of no media releases until there was final agreement on various ways forward, what opportunities and ideas are therefore more likely to gain oxygen? 

Either of these bottom up approaches would surely gain more political support, especially when that all-important electoral date rolls around, because we’d all be part of the solution, especially the bits that nobody likes but would make Tasmania more resilient in the long run?