“Less people with pencils and more people digging up roads”

It’s hard to believe that when the NSW Premier Mike Baird and Local Government Minister Paul Toole last week launched their response to the authoritative, scholarly and compelling recommendations of the Independent Review Panel, the best the Premier could say was “less people picking up pencils and more people digging up roads”.

What a bizarre, old-fashioned and primitive understanding of local government the State Government must have. They can call it “Fit for the Future”, but they need to be realistic about both the past and the present first.

When did you last see a pencil? Some tradespeople, certainly, but if the Government anticipates that it’s going to create more financially sustainable councils providing better services to their communities, identifying the few people who may use pencils, and getting rid of them, won’t help.

Pencils have been around for centuries. They lived alongside quilled pens and both quilled pens and pencils will be hard to find in any Council office. What on earth did they mean? Fewer “pen pushers” perhaps, or less colouring in, the closing down of childcare and sending the kids out on the road to dig it up, it’s hard to tell. Virtually everyone and everything is computerised today, even in the most financially unsustainable, smallest and most primitive of local government area.

And as a response to such a carefully drafted series of documents and recommendations as those produced by the Independent Review Panel, everyone is entitled to feel disappointed.

Digging up roads? Surely the point of better services is not just digging up roads, but maintaining them? Who writes this drivel anyway? Poor language and grammar skills, poor imagery, poor execution. It’s hard to get good help.

But nevertheless, on 10 September the Government did announce its strategy of inducing/bribing councils to embrace, voluntarily, the recommendations to merge, amalgamate, remain unchanged or perish made by the Independent Review Panel almost 2 years ago. On council boundaries, the recommendations of the Panel leave only 32 of the State’s 152 councils with the recommendation of “no change”.

A number of documents have been published – repetitive and overlapping but with summary documents that make easy reading and which neatly and colourfully identify the inducements offered -$258 million to help councils which decide to merge to make the transition; $13 million to  local transition committees to provide some comfort to elected representatives wondering about the continuing relevance; $5.3 million to get new regional Joint Organisations up and running; $4 million to help small councils (fewer than 10,000 residents) develop “innovative ways of working” and let’s hope that doesn’t just mean getting rid of pencils; and up to $600 million in potential savings in cheaper finance for councils that make the grade of being “Fit for the Future” to invest in local infrastructure.

No chance with all that cash available that the Government will be accused of offering insufficient bribes. There will also be expert assistance provided to help merging councils, regional relationship managers from the Office of Local Government and facilitators to help councils begin discussions about how to merge.

And access to a team of technical experts to help councils prepare their Fit for the Future proposals which need to be filed by 30 June 2015.

All the information you need to know, the 32 Councils without recommended change to boundaries, the “Blueprint” for the future, the “roadmap for Stronger, Smarter Councils” and the “roadmap for intergovernmental collaboration in NSW” for joint organisations is all on the website – www.fitforthefuture.nsw.gov.au

It’s all about financial sustainability, roads and road maps. That must be why their concerns about infrastructure never mention rail.

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