With the Corona virus first and foremost in our minds everything else seem less important, but that does not mean other things are not still important, and of course many of us now have more time to think about them. The Nillumbik Council has published a ‘Draft Economic Strategy’ which deserves some attention, not because it is a useful contribution but because scarce funds are being expended on a project which has little value.  

The Draft suggests that it’s a problem that residents spend $1billion ‘outside the Shire’, and that ‘addressing this escape expenditure is key to growing the number of local businesses and jobs’. Escape expenditure? Are we in competition with ‘Melbourne, Greensborough and Doncaster’, the supposed beneficiaries of this ‘leakage’? The document also suggests that it’s a problem that 77% of the working population of Nillumbik commutes outside the Shire. That of course not a real problem: it’s a reflection of the fact that Nillumbik is a green outer metropolitan Shire in which people like to live and which has been zoned to expressly avoid urbanization.

Remember when government offices and some large corporates had framed ‘mission statements’ hanging in their entrance foyers? Thankfully that fashion has passed, but now we have ‘Our Vision’. Here’s ‘Our Vision’ from Nillumbik’s ‘Draft Economic Strategy’:

  • We will capitalise on our strengths to grow the economy through advocacy, collaboration, partnerships and innovation, compatible with the Shire’s unique natural environment

The sad thing is that someone actually wrote this, and probably it was argued about and discussed at a meeting of Council officers. But we are not meant to actually think about it. Growth, is that what we, the residents of the Shire really need? More houses? More businesses? Nillumbik is not a business park, it’s a green wedge shire. But the fundamental problem with this so-called ‘vision’ and with the whole idea of an ‘economic strategy’ for Nillumbik is that in no useful sense does Nillumbik have a defined ‘economy’.

The Federal and State governments have roles to play in managing their economies, using monetary and fiscal measures and by manipulating taxes and incentives. The major statistical indicators of the state of an economy relate to employment and productivity, and these measures are neither available nor meaningful at local government level. Nor do local governments have access to the tools of economic management. Nillumbik Council has significant financial responsibilities, of course. It has not much choice about rates, annual increases having been capped by the State, and foregoing an annual increment would generally be irresponsible. It can borrow on our behalf, but its most important financial management activity is budgeting, that is deciding how to spend our money. Managing finances, that’s the job. Not managing an ‘economy’.

Council does have a role in relation to granting approvals for new or expanding businesses, and they should of course aim to do this efficiently. The Draft says that they will ‘Provide businesses with improved assistance with the planning process’ and implement the State Government’s Better Approvals Project’. That’s fine, but it’s interesting to note that 19 Councils, including Manningham, have already implemented ‘Better Approvals’ – but, as far as we can ascertain, not Nillumbik yet.

Under the overblown heading ‘Strategic Economic drivers’ we come across ‘The need to create local businesses and jobs’, and one of the ways of doing that is said to be to do with Eltham and Diamond Creek:

  •  ‘Their design and operation will provide spaces where business can thrive, residents and visitors can congregate and people can live’.

The Council most certainly has the primary responsibility for town planning in the Shire, and of course we don’t object to planning aiming to help business to thrive, but will this statement, in this document, be a practically useful guide? Will it help in the implementation of practical planning?

The document goes on to say ‘These centres are vital to Nillumbik’s economic future’. This is nonsense. ‘Nillumbik’s economic future’ is not a useful concept.

Vague statements about the ‘the economy’ and ‘economic sustainability’ are often used to support arguments for the relaxation of regulations so that approvals can be given to favoured business applications. This Council has already signalled its desire to develop the green wedge, indicating that they don’t value the regulations which support its continued existence. It may be that the underlying purpose of the ‘Draft Economic Strategy’ is merely to provide cover for approving borderline development applications.

It is unfortunate that this Council is devoting resources to a project with no prospect of delivering real benefits to the Shire.