John Roydhouse

30 January 2014 — Capacity must be built in the local government sector to achieve sustainable public infrastructure and deal with climate change, according to the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia New South Wales chief executive John Roydhouse.

For local councils, this challenge is compounded by the push for further council amalgamations, which the NSW State Government believes will deliver improved financial sustainability.

“Climate change is a classic example of the challenges facing public infrastructure,” Roydhouse says.

“There is climate variability, which [public works engineers and councils] have to factor in when they build or replace infrastructure, especially in coastal communities.”

Sea level rise, for example, means IPWEA’s members will be engaging with questions such as where to put sea walls and how high to build them, while local government and planners need to consider whether coastal development is even appropriate in some areas given the increased risks.

IPWEA is taking a leadership role in professional development and sustainability education for engineers and others engaged in the public works sector, including local councillors. A series of sustainable public infrastructure training workshops will be delivered this year by sustainability trainer and The Fifth Estate columnist Michael Mobbs, with dates currently confirmed for Sydney and Dubbo.

“Our aim is to broaden the horizons and the scope of how people look at things [like sustainability],” Roydhouse says. “We want to get councillors along who have a green bent to help them understand the engineering bent.

“There are a whole lot of perspectives. We aim to bring all the elements together to crystallise the thinking and to see if there is a better way of doing things that is sustainable, cost-effective and gives better outcomes for the future.”

One of the key decisions councils can make when looking at replacing public infrastructure is not simply making a like-for-like replacement, but instead aiming for “betterment”.

Roydhouse says a good example is flood repair works, where the choice is to replace a bridge by building one exactly the same, or spending an extra 10 per cent to raise it higher, thereby avoiding future damage. By incorporating this kind of lifecycle analysis into asset management, the cost-effectiveness of “betterment” soon becomes apparent.

Navigating the challenges of regionalism

In January of this year, the Independent Local Government Review Panel released the Revitalising Local Government Report. The report proposed a range of measures aimed at making the local government sector more financially sustainable and delivering sound local governance.

Panel chair Professor Graham Sansom says the report should be seen as the beginning of a series of changes that will take several years to complete.

“Local government is big business,” Sansom says.

“NSW councils spend around $10 billion each year and employ some 50,000 people. Better local government is vital for the State’s future. We literally can’t afford councils that are [financially] unsustainable or lack the capacity to meet community needs and work effectively with State agencies.”

However, in pursuing triple bottom line sustainability, forced amalgamations are not the only option. Sustainability initiatives and collaborative regional resource-sharing can also deliver some of the benefits predicted from amalgamation.

IPWEA has been engaged in the consultations, and Roydhouse believes a balance needs to be struck between the efficiency aspects of consolidating councils along regional lines, and the benefits of local knowledge.

It’s the classic baby and bathwater challenge – how to reconfigure local government boundaries by consolidating smaller councils into Local Government Areas that are larger in size and leaner in terms of LGA staffing, while not losing the local knowledge base which is essential for effective design and delivery of sustainable public works projects.

The Regional Organisations of Councils with their voluntary joint effort arrangements offer another approach, while the report proposes a model of legally binding “joint organisations” of councils.

Currently, many of the state’s ROCs are engaged in a variety of sustainability initiatives, such as Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils’ waste management arrangements.

By working together, economies of scale can be achieved through increased clout in procurement. Other regional alliances for projects such as roadworks are achieving savings through bargaining power on purchasing bitumen and asphalt to be shared between council projects.

There is also an increasing level of innovation being delivered in many local government public works projects, including roads, sports grounds, pools, stormwater management, parks and street lighting. Other areas IPWEA members are engaged with include emergency management, managing operations, financing, risk management and safety.

“As an industry association, we are trying to encourage best practice,” Roydhouse says.

“The [state government’s] local government reform emphasis is on viability and sustainability for local government areas… Regionalisation is a push towards a more cooperative alliance approach between councils.

“It’s about doing things a little bit smarter and sharing resources.”

In addition to the “Joint Organisations” of councils across NSW, other key proposals in the Revitalising Local Government Report include:

  • Creating a broadly representative Far West Regional Authority to work alongside local government in addressing the special challenges facing that region
  • Providing options for new types of local government, including “Rural Councils” in some sparsely populated areas and “Community Boards” in large urban centres
  • A new framework for “fiscal responsibility” in local government, including better medium-long term planning, improved asset and financial management, and bringing council audits under the oversight of the Auditor General
  • Additional measures to tackle the infrastructure backlog and improve service delivery, including service reviews, a state-wide borrowing facility for local government to cut the cost of loans, and re-distribution of available grant funding to areas of greatest need