LOCAL GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY
My question without notice is to the Minister for Local Government. What is the Government doing to make local councils more accountable?
On a point of order. The question anticipates debate on the legislation amending the Local Government Act, which is now before the House and which deals with this very issue. Under the standing orders the question is out of order.
Order! I am advised that the bill before the House is not all-encompassing; it deals with a particular matter. More importantly, the question allows the Minister to provide information so that members will be better informed when debate on the bill takes place in the House.
Mr E. T. PAGE:
For local councils to be accountable it is vital that the community has easy access to information about what the councils are doing in relation to a range of matters. A publication I will release today entitled "Comparative
Information on NSW Local Government Councils, 1996/97" is the latest in a popular series of publications produced by the Government which allow people to compare the performance of their council with other councils of similar size. Since coming to office the Government has delivered on a commitment to improve the annual information that is provided on the relative performance of New South Wales councils. The publication’s format has been considerably changed during the term of the Government.
It is now the most comprehensive comparison of local government performance published anywhere in Australia. It is also extremely easy to access. It groups councils together according to national local government classifications so that valid comparisons of performance can be made. New South Wales is waiting for the rest of Australia to catch up so that these comparisons mean something in the other States. For the first time, this volume records the performance of councils in each category for the past three financial years so that trends can easily be seen. A category average is also provided so that the performance of each individual council can be compared with others in the group.
The most popular category of information has proved to be the average rate per residential assessment. Hunters Hill has the highest average residential rate at $915.10, followed by Pittwater at $832.10. Brewarrina has the lowest average rate at $65.78. The State average residential rate is $500. That is perhaps an indication of the great variance in the size and characteristics of the 177 New South Wales councils. The other popular categories are those that give figures for the number of days, on average, it takes a council to process a building application or a development application. It is pleasing to see that the statewide average for processing building applications is 37 days, which is within the 40-day period the Act allows for applications to be processed.
The average for development applications is 62 days, a slight improvement on the figure for the previous year. Shoalhaven City Council processed the highest number of development applications, that is, 1,768. The highest number of building applications, 4,419, was processed by Blacktown City Council. Those councils have occupied those positions for each of the last three financial years. A key commitment of this Government has been to improve the openness and accountability of local councils in New South Wales. Ultimately, it is up to the community to judge the performance of local councils.
To make this judgment the community needs good information about what councils are doing. The reforms introduced by the Government have increased the amount of information available to the community. One of the major reforms was the passage last year of the Local Government Amendment (Open Meetings) Bill, which restricts the reasons for which a council can close its meetings to the public. The bill also provides improved appeals procedures for any member of the public who disagrees with a council’s decision to close a section of its meeting to the public or to refuse access to certain documents. Amendments have also been made by regulation to improve the transparency of council processes. Amendments to the reporting requirements of councils now mean that they must publish in their annual reports exact salary details for all senior staff. Previously those figures were not publicly available.
I believe it is reasonable for people to have access to those figures so that they can make their own judgments about how councils spend their money. This provision also brings councils in line with the reporting requirements of State government agencies. Similarly, councils are now required to publish in their annual reports the amount of money spent each year on travel. In all these areas I am not seeking as the Minister to pass a judgment on councils as to how they spend their money. Councils are democratically elected bodies; the people who elect them must pass that judgment. As Minister I am determined to ensure that the community has the information available to it to make an assessment of councils. The comparative information series is a major part of that commitment.
Apart from the categories of information mentioned earlier, the publication also provides information on the sources of council revenue, library services, waste management charges, the amount of recyclable material collected per household, the cost of sewerage and water supply services, and the percentage of council’s planning budget spent on legal costs. As well as being available in hard copy format, the publication is also available on the Department of Local Government’s home page. I thank councils for their co-operation in providing the information for this publication, and also the staff of the department, who work hard each year to produce it.