The New South Wales Minister for Local Government, Don Page, has outlined the state’s plan for local government reforms, including planned legislation to allow councils to conduct their own local government elections, rather than depend on the centralised NSW Electoral Commission.


Addressing the Shires Association Annual Conference in Sydney, Mr Page said that work on the legislation and development of clear policy guidelines had already begun.


"I’m sure you will agree that we need to make sure the rules are clear and that the integrity of the process is maintained so the community has confidence that every election is run transparently. The Division of Local Government will be working with you on the arrangements so councils will be able to make an informed decision by October this year at the latest, about whether you run your own election in 2012 or have the Electoral Commission do it for you," he said.


Mr Page outlined the Destination 2036 project that is being developed by the Division of Local Government in consultation with the LGSA and LGMA, and with the assistance of the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government to further build the relationship between state and local government. He said the two-day event, to be held in Dubbo in August, will be a sector-wide strategic planning process for mayors and general managers to identify what the local government sector needs to do as a whole to be sustainable in the longer term.


"It will go beyond individual 10-year Community Strategic Plans, and four-year Delivery Programs developed by councils. It will deliver a long-term vision and action plan for the whole local government sector for the next quarter of a century. It’s about the whole State and what we need, in terms of local governance, to prosper through the next 25 years," he said.


"I am particularly keen to see what incentives could assist, and what obstacles can be removed, to reform the sector."


Mr Page said that as part of the overhaul of regional planning, Part 3a of the Planning Act had been scrapped, returning powers over development to the elected representatives of local communities. As a result of this, he said, over 50% of projects previously being assessed at State level were being either returned to local councils or to Joint Regional Planning Panels for assessment. The Environmental Planning and Assessment Act is to be reviewed, and until that review is completed, the Joint Regional Panels will remain in place.


However, Mr Page said, the membership of Joint Regional Planning Panels and the eligibility requirements for Regional Panel projects will change to give local communities a greater voice in the planning assessment process.


"In the future, each Regional Panel will have two council appointees and the chair will be appointed by the Minister in consultation with the LGSA. In other words we will tip the balance in favour of local government so that we have three from local government and two from state agencies, the reverse of what the previous arrangements were," he said.


Mr Page emphasised the importance attached by his government to re-negotiating the Inter-governmental Agreement (IGA) between the NSW Government and LGSA.


"While this is subject to negotiations with you, and Cabinet approval, I am keen to explore how the IGA can be strengthened and better focused on the issues important to the sector and the NSW Government, in particular the cost shifting that occurred under the previous government.


Mr Page also announced a  review of the 18-year old Local Government Act, including the removal of the concept of “Body Politic” in the Act, and examination of  s358 restrictions on formation of corporations and other entities. Further, the Division of Local Government, together with the Department of Planning and Infrastructure, is undertaking a council-by-council audit of the local infrastructure backlog


He said that NSW had secured $3.2 million through the Commonwealth Local Government Reform Fund to assist councils to improve their asset management and financial planning capabilities. The funds will be used to provide targeted financial assistance to 40 councils assessed as 'Group Three' and in need of assistance. The Division of Local Government will shortly be writing to councils to provide further details.


Mr Page outlined the Infrastructure Renewal Fund that will provide up to $1 billion in in borrowings for local councils to upgrade roads, community halls, libraries, parks, sporting grounds and water infrastructure. He said a Local Infrastructure Renewal Scheme will be established to provide subsidies to local councils to assist them with the cost of debt.The scheme will allow councils to borrow with an interest rate subsidy which will be equivalent to 50% of the NSW Government bond rate, at a cost of $70 million over 4 years.


Mr Page also released the ‘Collaborative Arrangements between Councils Survey Report’, which examined the ways in which 110 councils that particpated in the survey collaborate and share resources and the issues that impact the effectiveness of these arrangements. The report noted that Regional Organisations of Councils are a primary model through which some councils are choosing to identify, plan, manage and conduct their resource sharing and collaborative programs.


Mr Page noted that another area that the Division of Local Government had been asked to addres was the Model Code of Conduct and the misbehaviour provisions of the Local Government Act 1993.


"I know that many of you have concerns about how the Code of Conduct is being used, or in some cases, abused. It’s time for us to work together to make any improvements so we can all get onto the main task at hand; providing services to our communities.  In particular we need to address things like the gatekeeper role of general managers and mayors, the potential for misusing the code for point scoring and other political purposes, and the cost of investigations."


Mr Page released the Discussion Paper on the Code of Conduct, which is available here.