Greater inclusion of local government in metro governance needed

By Shannon Jenkins

March 25, 2021

Local governments are key to the liveability, development and functioning of Australia’s metros. (Image: Adobe/Javen)

Australia needs some form of metropolitan governance structure to tackle pressing challenges, and greater engagement with local government in metropolitan governance can provide numerous benefits, according to new research from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

The research, led by RMIT University professor Andrew Butt, examines the role of local government engagement and coordination in modern Australian metropolitan governance. It has found that local governments are key to the “liveability, development and functioning of Australia’s metropolitan regions”, and yet local governments are “generally removed from real influence on issues that have scope to create change in our cities”.

The report noted that Australia’s existing governance structures pose “significant challenges” at the metropolitan scale, and that some form of metropolitan governance structure would be needed to address numerous pressing issues.

“Urban development and growth in Australia does not adhere with local or state government administrative boundaries, particularly in relation to complex issues such as climate change, urban habitat, transport infrastructure, water and waste management and energy transitions,” it said.

“The interconnected nature and increasing complexity of Australian metropolitan governance raises critical questions about the existing political fragmentation and multiplicity of boundaries, functions and government services that often replicate and compete with one another. This, in turn, has reignited calls for metropolitan-scale governance.”

The paper has proposed that local government can be an “effective way of operationalising diverse metropolitan governance structures”. It said greater local government engagement and coordination in metropolitan governance can provide greater connectivity, resource sharing efficiencies, congruence of services, and harmonising of policies and legislation.

Increased involvement of local government and better coordination between the different tiers of government would be crucial to finding governance approaches and mechanisms that are fit for purpose, democratically defensible, adhere to the core principles of equity and transparency, and include an emphasis on recognising local need and difference, the report said.

It has suggested that Australia look to international examples about possible models for local government coordination and metropolitan governance, such as the Greater London Authority (GLA). Through the GLA, the Mayor of London is responsible for preparing a comprehensive statutory spatial development strategy for the Greater London area, known as the London Plan. The mayor consults on any policy changes or amendments of the plan with counties and districts adjoining the Greater London region. Meanwhile, local plans of the London boroughs must also align with the London Plan.

READ MORE: 70 years of urban growth in one infographic

Launching the report alongside Butt and AHURI head of development Dr Tom Alves, Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) senior policy advisor Liz de Chastel said the best outcomes for metropolitan cities derive from coordination and partnerships across all levels of governments, community and the business sector.

However, other levels of government often don’t understand the role and mandate of local government.

“Often the public servants have no idea,” de Chastel said.

“We find in Canberra, working with the federal government, there’s often a real lack of understanding about local governments, and what they do.

“So I think there’s an obligation on all parties around the table to really understand each other’s views, and each other’s roles and responsibilities, whether it’s across regional boundaries, Metropolitan boundaries or what particular issues are being talked about.”

She noted that local governments should also “sell” themselves more to ensure other levels of government really understand what they do and how they can contribute to decision-making.

A greater say in decision-making is particularly important as local governments often understand their communities in ways that state, territory, or commonwealth governments do not, de Chastel said.

ALGA has been calling for a place on the national cabinet since its establishment last year, with the support of Labor, so it can play a larger decision-making role at a national level.

de Chastel said that, in light of the impacts of COVID-19, now would be a good time “for all parties to take stock of their metropolitan governance structures, with a view to rebalancing the local voices”.

READ MORE: Opinion: local government needs a voice at the national cabinet


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