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.

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