The Board has heard that a lack of clarity surrounding the current role of local government can result in unrealistic or confused expectations from communities – and at times from elected representatives – about what councils can or should be doing. This has created gradual ‘scope creep’ in the range of functions some councils perform. The Review presents an opportunity to clarify the future role of local government, so we can move forward on the best ways of supporting it through practical reform.
We also recognise that local government has changed considerably in recent decades and will continue to do so as community needs evolve. In furthering our understanding of role, the Board’s engagement and research suggests:
- There is support for local government to play a carefully defined ‘place-shaping’ role. This includes providing high quality and increasingly sophisticated representation, engagement, and community advocacy, as well as facilitating and coordinating programs and projects at a community level. Place-shaping also includes vital economic and community development functions, strategic land-use planning, and targeted place-based wellbeing initiatives in response to distinctive community needs or preferences.
- There is support for the idea that councils should have flexibility to provide ‘optional’ services (in addition to those statutory functions they should be prioritising) in response to clear community needs or demands. When councils do this, however, it should be with the support of their communities via a transparent and accountable process. Councils should explain why they are proposing to provide a new service and how much it will cost ratepayers.
- There is a clear need to develop robust and properly supported frameworks and processes for more effective strategic partnerships between local, state, and federal governments, enabling better coordination of effort between neighbouring councils and among spheres of government.
Breaking down councils' role and functions
Councils play different roles depending on the situation and community need. While councils and their communities need clarity about who is responsible and accountable for what, local government must also be able to respond with flexible solutions to meet the needs of communities. We believe that, rather than a single role, councils should play different roles depending on the situation, issue, and community need.
To support councils in performing their role, we believe it will be essential to distil the different council roles and functions into a clear framework for councillors, council staff, and communities alike. Feedback from submissions and consultation conducted for the Review has suggested that a Local Government Charter may be the best way to achieve this.
- There is support for developing a clear and concise Charter for local government. The document would include a summary of councils’ role, as well as outlining the role and responsibilities of elected representatives and council staff, similar to how the role is legislated in Victoria.
- A Charter should be included within the Local Government Act, the key guiding document for Council executives and councillors.
- It must be designed to clarify and raise awareness of the role and responsibility of local government for communities.
- A Charter should summarise a council’s core statutory roles and functions.
- A Charter should not add unnecessary complexity. It should also allow councils the flexibility they need to respond to changing circumstances and their communities’ unique needs.
- A Charter could clarify the relationship, roles and responsibilities of local government in relation to, and in collaboration with, other spheres of governments, particularly around funding.
Supporting wellbeing - 'core business' for local government
The concept of wellbeing captures a range of factors and circumstances that enable us to live a ‘good life’. It includes things like physical and mental good health, financial resources, and social connections. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that wellbeing challenges cannot be tackled by state and federal governments alone. They will increasingly require partnerships with a strong and capable local government sector, service providers, and communities themselves.
The Review has revealed strong support for councils’ role in supporting community wellbeing if it is clearly defined, carefully integrated into state and national policies, and appropriately resourced. At this stage, the Board acknowledges there is an absence of any clear legislative framework or overarching state policy to align the various efforts of councils and other spheres of Government more effectively.
A Queensland framework for wellbeing indicators breaks down local government’s role into five areas. Applying this framework helps to identify the specific role councils can play to improve community wellbeing, shown below.
Strategic, structured and sustainable partnerships
The need to support strategic collaboration and partnerships among councils, as well as between local, State, and Federal Governments, has been a consistent theme of the Review. Improving strategic collaboration between different spheres of government is becoming more urgent given growing recognition that complex social, environmental, and economic challenges, such as climate change, can only be addressed through collaboration across all levels of government, industry, and the community.
Many other areas of government activity could also benefit from greater collaboration between local and state authorities, including through:
- Sharing technical expertise between State and local government professionals;
- Expanding the integration of Service Tasmania and council front office functions;
- State agencies providing more detailed advice and guidance on legislation/regulation implemented by local government;
- Greater commitment to co-regulation; and Integration of workforce planning and training strategies.
The Board believes more effective collaboration can
take many forms and has clear potential to improve
outcomes for Tasmanian communities. Successful
and sustained collaboration requires trust,
commitment, and transparency about the role and
responsibilities of different actors in key partnerships.
Critically, the Board has heard voluntary approaches to regional or intergovernmental partnerships are difficult to sustain and vulnerable to councils opting in or out based on changing priorities. For this reason, the Board will need to consider whether there are areas in which collaboration between councils, and between the State and local government, should be made mandatory.