By Michael Mobbs

25 February 2010 – Councils are the biggest obstacle preventing us from living sustainably. They design, build and maintain the roads; they control most development. But they are creatures spawned by state and federal governments and dance to their tunes.

Getting rid of councils would not automatically open the door to sustainable development because the remaining governments would fill the void, and they would probably be an even greater barrier.

But what is to be done?

The changes we have to make to our cities are so great, and the time Earth has for us to achieve them is so short, that I can’t see councils making the change in time. It takes half a decade to bring in new planning rules, for example.

True, local government Acts require councils to implement sustainable policies but no legislation ever rises above the level of its administration, and councils don’t push sustainability. (I’m talking about the whole of local government, which is largely unaffected by scattered innovative and exceptional achievements by some members of council, and a few councils.)

Achieving sustainability depends for its success on some form of innovation. Councils hate that. So, tasked by law with doing something that they hate, they don’t do it but they pretend to.

Here are two examples of what’s wrong with local government. One is germane to most councils, the other is a recent conflict chosen because it underlines how difficult it is for elected representatives to deliver policies they were elected to implement when a council’s staff culture gets in the way.

From supermarkets to tennis courts

This example involves what I consider an essential policy if we are to make cities sustainable – having cities of villages – which I talked about in an earlier article on supermarkets.
Mayor Clover Moore and the City of Sydney Council’s vital policy of achieving a so-called city of villages have the smell of death about it. Staff agendas appear to so dominate councillors’ priorities that the villages policy, endorsed by the electorate, appears to be dormant, but more likely is lost.

This month staff proposed to get rid of five independent tennis centre operators and replace them with just one. There go five local businesses.

One of the ousted operators, dearly loved by the community in which he has been training kids for 25 years, free of charge, said: “Clover Moore says this is a city of villages. Putting one bloke in charge of every council court from Alexandria to Rushcutters Bay does the absolute opposite.”

Council staff explained their initiative (never put to voters or emanating from the councillors) to councillors thus: “We just want one operator to deal with”. “We” being the staff.  To put it in the language of a child: “It’s all about me.”

Or, just to make things clear, let’s use the language of a street thug: “Bugger that silly villages idea the dopey councillors came up with; who do they think they are. It’s our council. Bugger local businesses; the fewer there are of the time-wasters the better. Bugger local jobs, except ours, of course.”

You may ask, “what’s a tennis court policy got to do with sustainable development?”

In the earlier article I argued that sustainable cities are only achievable if they support thriving village economies. If we don’t have profitable local businesses and a rich mix of them there will be no jobs to walk to; no low-energy local economies; nowhere to shop or play locally, with local profits leaving the community, and a downward spiral only solvable by travelling long distances to work. And no villages. (None of this is new: great city analysts such as Jane Jacobs and others have convincingly argued this point decades ago; if it’s new to you, you are in for a real treat if you read Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities.)

A development process to suit staff, not councillors, the community or developers

In an effort to reduce the potential for developers to corrupt councillors, a cobweb of red tape controls the timing and circumstances when developers may present their proposals to councillors.

It’s common for a developer to be compelled to present projects only in the company of council staff. Some councils only allow a developer to talk to a councillor about a project after the council officers’ report has been published.

Let’s look at a typical project chronology. Assume the project includes an innovative sustainable element being presented to council for the first time, just to show how hard it is to get councils to embrace sustainability.

Days 1 to 150: For six months the developer and his consultants work through the technical, financial, operational and planning rules for a project and several meetings are held with staff. On one of these days, say day 50, the developer presents the project to the mayor and senior staff, and some feedback is given.

Day 151: Development Application lodged for a $50 million project.

Day 151 to 400: Developer seeks to present proposal to councillors but they say rules prevent them meeting the developer until the staff’s recommendations have been published.

Day 170 : Council advertises DA, receives public comments and sends copies to developer

Day 400: A Friday; council staff publish their recommendations on the council’s web page. The recommendations will be considered at a committee on Monday, three days hence. Developer gets recommendations, along with all councillors; discovers recommendations raise issues never raised by staff and add another $5 million to the project, and the sustainable initiative appears non-commercial because of conditions.

Days 401 to 402: Saturday, Sunday. Developer attempts to meet key councillors but they are besieged by other developers. There is also a large community conflict taking up a lot of councillors’ time and the developer is only able to see three of 11 councillors.

Day 403: Developer seeks to address the issues in a committee meeting but the meeting dynamic is inadequate for adequate discussion of the project.

Day 410: A week later, the project goes to the final council meeting. Due to intensive lobbying, the developer is able to amend the conditions and reduce the additional costs by $1 million. Consulting costs to the developer for this part of the exercise may be in region of tens of thousands of dollars.

Typically the process gives staff a year to deal with the project, but just three days for councillors to understand and make a decision, followed by a week to have the project further explained by the developer and the community. The community is least able to get on top of policy and project details. (The same process applied to the tennis courts’ policy; a few days for councillors and the public but many months for the staff.)

In this process corruption is the least of our worries. The last week of it is so jam-packed that comprehension and understanding of the project by the decision-makers is a modest goal. In my experience, that is seldom achieved.

It’s a process so risky and unfair to all but the council staff it’s likely to promote corruption, simply because the developer will want to overcome the time bias in favour of the staff, compared to the developer and the community.

Is that the best way to handle development, particularly innovative development?

Solutions

One option is to increase the range of deemed approvals to include sustainable projects. A robust list of prerequisites would be needed and it’s not difficult to imagine them. This could be done quickly, but for the inevitable resistance by councils.

An option is for state and federal governments to mandate minimum performance requirements for a state, or for all states. Examples include First Rate, BASIX, NABERS, NATHERS, Australian Standards and other building rules.

Minimum standards don’t sustain cities. They’re far too low. They’re pitched at lifting the worst performers. This is partly due to the overwhelmingly poor level of education of local government engineers and planners, many of whom are out of touch with best practice but are able to stay employed using principles they learned 30 years ago, without meeting mandatory continuing education requirements of the kind doctors and lawyers must if they are to continue in practice.

Another option is performance measures in employment contracts. These could be negotiated with every chief executive officer (CEO) and senior staff at each council election to ensure that policies put to the electorate are reflected in key council staff contracts, and they’d be published.

With clear measures of their success, CEOs of councils and corporations, and directors of government departments, bring a focus to their analysis of policy and new issues. They know they have to account for achieving the negotiated outcomes every six months, or every year. For innovations outside policy, staff would have to certify that the initiative does, or does not, undermine policy. They could bring innovations to council for consideration that they certified did not conform to policy, of course, and this would bring a measure of transparency to councils’ operations. Voters would be told, for the first time, what was a staff initiative and what was an electoral promise made good. This would make both staff and councillors more accountable.

I wonder if the City of Sydney Council tennis courts’ brouhaha would have come about if key staff had had to certify that the one tennis courts’ operator policy did undermine the city of villages policy but, for this and that reason, was a reasonable thing to do?

If the role of local governments is to fairly balance competing demands for resources — whether it be land, housing, transport, work, tennis courts, etc — that role is fundamentally flawed without contracts requiring key council staff to be accountable to their employer and the public for what they do, when they do it.

This flaw is so much the greater when the decision-making process is unfair to councillors, developers and the community simply because they have far less time than staff to understand and negotiate projects, policies and decisions.

Making council staff accountable for implementing policy, including sustainable polices, may not sustain our cities in the time needed, but it may reduce some of the logjams that development and innovation endure in local councils.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. www.sustainablehouse.com.au

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