The role of local government in environmental and heritage management
Dr Su Wild River, The Australian National University
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
This is the first time that the national state of the environment report has dedicated a chapter to local government. Because of this, the pressures, state and responses of local governments to the challenge of environment and heritage issues have not yet been mapped out for the purpose of state of the environment reporting. That structure (pressure–state–response) works well for making sense of the role of local government in environment and heritage work, and is taken up here.
Many local governments publish their own state of the environment reports. Some stem from statutory requirements (see for example Local Government Act (NSW) 1993, s428), while others are voluntary initiatives, at times conducted within the scope of broader programs (Alexandra et al. 1998). These reports provide valuable insights into the status and priorities of environmental issues at local levels. The possible benefits of linking the findings from local reports to those of state or national reports are mitigated by discrepancies in focus, content, style and data quality (Alexandra et al. 1998). Despite this, calls for closer links between reports at different scales continue (see for example Tasmania 2003).
The chapter presents a national perspective on local governments’ collective environment and heritage priorities. It does not focus on ‘local government environmental leaders’—those that are most centrally involved in driving environmental initiatives. The most outspoken local government environmental leaders are located within capital cities and other urban centres; they are more rich, populous and geographically compact than their more numerous rural and remote counterparts (Wild River 2005). Local government environmental leaders report many significant environmental achievements through other publications and programmes (see for example ALGA 2005a, ICLEI 2004, WALGA 2005, Wild River et al. 2002a). Published examples and case studies of local government environmental leadership are referred to in the text where relevant. In contrast to those reports, the analysis here aims for a balanced account of environmental issues facing Australian local governments as a whole.
There are good reasons for focusing national attention on local government. Every environmental issue is a local environmental issue. Even when those issues also capture the attention of state and territory, regional or Commonwealth agencies, the local governments in which they are located always have a profound and enduring interest that is worthy of attention by all spheres and stakeholders. Local government is the sphere of government that is closest to the people and environment. Despite being the smallest and poorest of Australia’s three government spheres, local government environmental spending far outweighs that of the others. Local governments set many strategic, long-term environmental policies, especially in the realm of land use planning. They also take small decisions and actions each day that cumulatively amount to shifts in regional environment and heritage values.
Part one of this commentary describes the pressures facing local governments. None of the pressures described are unique to local government, and none are purely environmental. Nonetheless, each has a distinctive impact on local government and its environmental roles, responsibilities and capacity both now and in the future. The pressures include challenging relationships, local government amalgamations, enhanced general roles and responsibilities, devolution, unfunded mandates and cost shifting, and population pressures from ‘sea change’ and ‘tree change’ movements.
Part two covers the state of environmental local governance. It starts by comparing the local government contribution to the environment to that of the other tiers of government. Then it discusses the state of local government’s capacity for environmental and heritage work, focusing on local government population and expenditure, extensiveness, remoteness and accessibility. Next it reviews local governments’ current contributions to specific environmental issues, including environmental planning, natural resource management, preserving cultural heritage and environmental protection.
Part three describes local government responses to these issues and also suggests possible responses by other agencies that could enhance the commitment and capacity of local government to deliver beneficial environmental outcomes.