Moving towards a single authority in Perth?

June 4, 2012

The momentum towards consolidation of local government in city regions is gaining ground. City regions such as Portland, Oregon, Auckland in New Zealand and others suggest a model which focuses on the capacity of the city region to compete internationally as well as underpin broader sustainability and social integration. Now in line with this momentum the city region of Perth in Western Australia seems to be moving towards a more integrated model of local government. Currently there are some 30 local authorities with a combined population of almost 1.7 million people covering an area of almost 5,400 square kilometres. Given that current population projections suggest that the city region will reach some 2.3 million people by 2026 it is little wonder that the Authorities in Western Australia are now looking at how local government for such a large scale urban area might be re-configured. It is clear that with such expansion strategic direction and the re-configuration of not just local government units but also State and Federal services must be on the agenda, a point highlighted by the Expert Group now in place to recommend reforms.

The review of local government arrangements commenced under the independent expert group in June 2011. The Group having completed extensive public consultation is now at a point where it is suggesting that there are three options which the Perth City Region might follow. Each will involve considerable consolidation within the current area of the city region.

Three main themes are informing the thinking underway:
• Reforming relationships, roles and functions
• An ideal structure of local government in metropolitan Perth
• Improving governance

Each theme has centred on the approach to overall government in Perth, in line with best international practice, rather than the piecemeal and ad hoc approach which, unfortunately has been a feature of reform efforts in Ireland in the past.

The work of the Review Group is now well advanced in that they have identified three possible options. The status quo is not one of them! The review panel has found that existing boundaries between the 30 local authorities are illogical, and there is too much variation in council size. Overall they have found that thirty local authorities is too many for the Perth region. The current arrangements and severely fragmented structure creates a high level of duplication, inconsistencies and difficulties for business, lost opportunities for communities, confusion for consumers, and planning that is complicated, uncoordinated and not strategic.

The expert group has found that there are key principles which should underpin the reform process, all worth taking note of!
• Building strategic capacity across the local government sector in Perth
• A more equitable spread of resources across metropolitan Perth and more
equitable delivery of services to all residents
• Reducing duplication and better use of existing infrastructure
• A streamlined regulatory environment with greater transparency, simplicity,
consistency, and certainty with attendant costs savings.
• Potential for achieving greater economies of scale
• Increased influence with State and Commonwealth governments reflected in
improved funding for community projects
• Achieving metropolitan-wide social, economic and environmental goals

The Group have come up with three options which are now the subject of consultation with the population in the region.
• 10 to 12 councils
• five to six councils
• one metropolitan council

With the move towards re-configured governance the Expert Group suggests that there will be both benefits and disadvantages. Among the benefits are:
a. increased strategic capacity across the local government sector;
b. a more equitable spread of resources across metropolitan Perth and
more equitable delivery of services to all residents.;
c. reduced duplication and better use of infrastructure;
d. a streamlined regulatory environment with greater transparency,
simplicity, consistency, and certainty with attendant costs savings for all
sectors of the community;
e. potential to achieve greater economies of scale;
f. increased influence with State and Commonwealth governments
reflected in improved funding for community projects;
g. the achievement of metropolitan-wide social, economic and
environmental goals.

A move towards re-configured local government structures on the scale envisaged, even for option 1 could potentially restrict the capacity for collaboration and community engagement. The Group recognises that this is an immediate challenge with the potential for many disbenefits. In that context, (while not suggesting the governance arrangements now in place through community boards in Auckland) it acknowledges that local government’s ability to connect to the community is an important asset. In any new local government structure for metropolitan Perth, the Group recommend that community engagement must be strengthened, to improve accountability and reduce the power of special interest groups, something which will sound familiar to those that have read the Mahon Report! Finally the Expert Group has recommended that, in addition to the reconfiguration process, the following should be considered within an overall reform process:

a. Introduction of compulsory voting at local government elections
b. Recognition of the leadership role of elected members
c. Election of Mayors by community
d. Increased remuneration of elected members
e. Training for elected members
f. Clarification of the role of CEO and elected members

One of the really useful aspects of the reform process is that everything is carried on a very accessible web-site: http://metroreview.dlg.wa.gov.au/
Worth checking it out!