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 final part to this theme commentary draws from the above discussion, but places it into a context of opportunities for the future. It is structured around three strategic, long-term areas for improving local government’s environmental and heritage work. These are establishing appropriate institutional arrangements, capacity building, and resourcing the transition (Bellamy et al. 2003).
Starting in the 1850s, but even now in the grip of an intense two-decade reform process, local government as an institution is both old and new. Running in parallel to the local government reforms, new institutional arrangements that delegate Australian Government funding decisions to natural resource management regional agencies have great potential for enhancing local government contributions to environment and heritage. The continued Australian Government funding of local government facilitator positions within local government associations is certainly assisting with engagement in national environmental initiatives. The recognition of local governments’ important natural resource management roles in NHT bilateral agreements, and the requirement for regions to involve local governments in developing and implementing the plans, further reinforces these connections. The discussion above has also highlighted key institutional constraints to effective state, territory and Australian government engagement with local governments including:
- failure of other spheres to respect the inherent role of local governments as creature and servant of the local
- regional dissonance, inhibiting local government connection with natural resource management regional agencies
- ongoing local government amalgamations that invalidate pre-existing environmental plans and interrupt interagency relationships in the short term
- lack of local government representation on regional natural resource management boards and joint steering committees
- short contracts for key staff working in local and regional agencies.
Capacity building aims to enhance activities within and between sectors, and local government is an explicit target of capacity building through NHT bilateral agreements. Local government capacity for environment and heritage work varies widely both within and between each state and territory. The poorest, least populous local governments have little capacity even to deliver on their core business, but they often manage vast areas of land, much of which is subject to environmental degradation. Efforts to build local government capacity could connect our knowledge of their unequal populations and expenditure to our understanding of the environmental problems they face. The maps presented here showing population and environmental vulnerability could provide a starting point for such analysis (a Land and Water Australia project, ‘ANU43: Resilience—enhancing local government capacity for natural resource management’, is doing this work and results will be available from 2006).
In resourcing a transition to better environmental outcomes by local government, the other spheres of government need to recognise that, although local government is the poorest of Australia’s three spheres of government, it already makes the greatest financial contribution to the environment. Most local government environmental funds are gathered through rates, and contributions from other spheres are comparatively small. They are disproportionately influential because they can require local actions to engage with broader environmental objectives but they raise a real risk to the viability of local governments. Cost shifting and devolution are already adding more than $500 million to the financial burden on local governments each year. Many local governments are opting not to apply for available funds for fear that they will raise community expectations for new environmental services and so add to the burden of cost shifting.
Responses to environmental and other issues can be viewed on local government association websites. Overall these responses are positive and proactive, seeking practical ways to make new environmental initiatives work. Australia’s environmental efforts would be enhanced if other spheres agreed to meet local governments’ reasonable demands for effective statutory systems, respectful institutional arrangements, and adequate, long-term resources to support their growing environmental responsibilities.
Australia’s environmental efforts could be enhanced by effective, useful and relevant partnerships formed between all spheres of government. These could address key issues and priority policy areas in a way that reflects the capabilities and resourcing opportunities that each sphere of government offers. Such partnerships would require a new way of thinking that allows all spheres of government to work together without conflict over finance or reliance on old practices (Raphael 2005 pers. comm.). Local governments would be willing and active partners in such initiatives.