Let’s put the local back in Local Government

Local government has the potential to be the most democratic form of governance within the Australian system.

Art by Ellie Stephenson.

Local government has the potential to be the most democratic form of government within the Australian system. They address the immediate concerns of residents within their jurisdiction. They are accessible for residents and can more comprehensively understand the concerns of their community, as it is much easier to get in touch with councillors and council staff. Outside of merely voting for an elected representative, residents can have regular input on issues between election cycles.

However, local governments are increasingly powerless to address 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, expecting 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’ masterplan, the NSW state government has overseen much of the new development planning. Furthermore, if a planned development satisfies building codes, the development does not first need to go to the local council for approval, under the “exempt and complying development” rules. This deprives local councils in Western Sydney of the power to meet the demands of their constituents.

In late 2021, the NSW government announced a number of policy adjustments to ensure more sustainable housing as part of former Minister for Planning Rob Stokes’ sustainable planning agenda. The proposal would have ensured all new houses had light-coloured roofing, a change that would reduce the urban heat island effect by an estimated 2.4°C drop across Sydney and up to 4°C in Western Sydney, specifically

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

Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils made submissions to the plan which raised specific points regarding other areas for improvement in relation to urban heat, energy use, thermal performance and waste management.

However, Anthony Roberts abandoned the Design and Place SEPP when he took over the role of Minister for Planning early this year. At the time, it was reported that this change came about because of pressures from property developers. Scrapping the Design and Place SEPP was a slap in the face for the local councils of Western Sydney who contributed to the policy design, and demonstrates their susceptibility to the whims of state government.

NSW government project funding also strips autonomy from local councils. Earlier this year the NSW government announced their WestInvest Program, securing $2 billion for community projects throughout Western Sydney, including $400 million between its 15 local councils. While investment is sorely needed, the grant model means the NSW government tailors Western Sydney’s development according to its plans – not the councils’ – which undermines the relationship between local governments and their constituents. 

Let’s take urban heat: if a Western Sydney council wants to address urban heat in their LGA, piecemeal projects won’t cut it. Meaningful change requires comprehensive local policy and state regulation across multiple sectors. However, the piecemeal approach lets the state get the publicity and clout of funding projects which treat the symptoms of poor planning, rather than addressing the urban design and climate change that causes 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 5000 street and park trees. Vegetation cover is an important tool in addressing urban heat but fails to address the underlying causes such as dark roofs.

Project-based funding is also problematic for workers who may be on short-term contracts which provide no employment security after grant money dissipates. In contrast, a properly funded local government system could ensure ongoing employment for its local workforce, without the state government vetting the projects.

The local councils of Western Sydney do great work. There are countless adaptation strategies running across LGAs to address issues directly affecting residents of the region – like urban heat. However, they do not have enough control over the planning of their own LGAs and this means that the connection councils have to their community remains overlooked and (more significantly) under-utilised.