Image courtesy WSROC.

Of all the unsung heroes looking after our communities, few are more important to our day-to-day safety, health and welfare than local council compliance officers.

However, their vital work is being defunded, even as government demands more of them.

Building and health compliance officers, for example, are highly skilled, typically university-qualified experts who carry a wide range of responsibilities for public health and safety.

These include inspecting buildings under construction, ensuring building owners comply with fire safety regulations, that restaurants and shops comply with food handling hygiene regulations, and that environmental regulations are properly enforced, among many other duties. 

Compliance officers both advocate for councils in court — and appear as expert witnesses.

It is not uncommon, then, for compliance officers to have multiple qualifications, including in law, engineering, environmental health, and other highly sought-after skills.

To help pay for this important work of protecting public health and safety, councils had been able to charge special levies on developers to ensure they met their environmental obligations and building standards.

Recently, however, the NSW Government passed a law prohibiting local councils from charging compliance levies on development applications (DAs).

Needless to say, this was welcomed by property developers but has shifted the full cost of managing planning controls, and building, health and other regulations back onto local communities.

There is a widespread community expectation — and a legal responsibility under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 — that local councils investigate and, where appropriate, take enforcement action for a wide range of land use planning compliance matters.

Added to this, the NSW Building Commissioner now expects councils to assist with compliance and enforcement of new state government building regulations. At councils’ expense.

To add insult to injury, while council compliance levies on developers are being cut, the NSW government has just introduced a compliance levy of its own on developers to help fund the work of the NSW Building Commissioner.

Meanwhile, council compliance officers’ responsibilities are being broadened by new laws and policies relating to short-term rental accommodation, agritourism and industrial development.

In other words, the cost of providing the vital work of compliance officers is being shifted away from the NSW government to local communities – on a massive scale.

Cost shifting by the NSW government and the Australian government onto local councils in NSW in the financial year 2015/16 was estimated to have been $820 million — up from an estimated $380 million in 2005/06.

The NSW government is responsible for the vast majority of all cost shifting, however, with just two per cent attributed to the Australian government.

The increase is mainly driven by the NSW Government’s $800 million annual waste levy. 

The aim of the waste levy is to reduce the amount of waste being sent to landfill sites and to promote recycling and resource recovery.

However, most of the day-to-day work of the state’s waste management system is conducted by local councils — and paid for by local communities.

The 2020 NSW Auditor-General report revealed that the NSW government has collected almost $4 billion from the waste levy in the last five years, but only about a third of this has been reinvested into waste and environmental programs.

On a state-wide basis, cost shifting associated with the waste levy alone increased from $212.5 million in 2013/14 to $305.1 million in 2015/16 – up 43.6 per cent in just two years.

So, while the NSW government shifts responsibility to local government for funding vital services and functions, it ensures the means for funding those services remains with itself.

Guess who gets the blame, however, when local councils can no longer fund the important work of managing waste, ensuring planning controls are enforced, protecting the local environment, inspecting food service premises, making sure building fire regulations are up to scratch — and so much more?

The unsung heroes doing all the actual heavy lifting, that is who.

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