Newly elected Councils are required by the Local Government Act to produce a ‘Council Plan’. We suppose the intent of this legislated requirement is to make councils accountable to their electorates. It can define a policy re-set for the CEO and senior management following an election.
If you are to have an impact as a councillor this can be an important and powerful document.
Last week Council released its draft plan for ‘your thoughts’. To read it won’t take long: leaving out the pictures and the introductory material it’s only a few pages. We very much encourage you to comment, because the document is in need of substantial work.
Nillumbik Council employs over three hundred staff and spends more than seventy million dollars a year in collecting our rubbish, developing and maintaining local infrastructure, providing a range of services and administering the planning scheme.
Council functions are in the main routine, and we want them to be carried out efficiently, without waste. We expect our rubbish to be collected on time, our local roads and other infrastructure to be well maintained, and important services like maternal health and pre-school centres to be well-delivered. In fact the introductory section of the draft plan relates that we have said in surveys that the “delivery of Council’s core services is of most importance to the community”
You would expect, then, that a council plan would be organized under headings which related to these functions, but this is not the case: it is instead divided into four abstract ‘thematic areas’:
- Community and connectedness
- Space and place
- Sustainability and resilience
Amazing, eh? What activities go where? These headings appear to be designed to deflect rather than to expose. To be fair, this is an affliction which is not particular to the Nillumbik Council, so let’s move on to the actual content.
Along with service delivery, also acknowledged in the draft is the importance to the community of the protection of our green wedge. This concern for the green wedge has been brought into focus by offences against it which have occurred under the previous council. For example the potentially damaging decision to grant a permit for the development of a one hundred and fifty seat restaurant in the green wedge in Yarrambat. That the damage is only potential at this stage is because the fate of the application is currently in the hands of VCAT. For example the worse than ineffectual response, actually the complicit response of the planning department to the dumping of fill over a span of two years in Chapel Lane at Cottles Bridge.
Indeed, a central issue in Nillumbik during the life of the previous council and at the election was the protection of our green wedge – but it rates not much more than a mention in this draft plan. This bullet point appears under the unexplained heading ‘Identity’, within the ‘Space and Place’ theme:
- “We value and admire our Green Wedge Shire, including our rural areas and leafy urban areas, which we work hard to protect”
Since this is the only specific and vaguely action-oriented reference to the green wedge in the entire document we probably should place some weight on it – but a claim that ‘we work hard to protect’ the green wedge is not a plan, and to too great an extent it has not actually been true for the past four years.
So what is the plan for the green wedge? Listed under ‘Supporting policies, strategies and plans’ is the answer: the ‘Green Wedge Management Plan’, a document prepared by an inexperienced consultant under the previous council, supposedly based on community consultation including the work of a community panel, but which ignored the panel’s recommendations, and which community submissions indicated, in submissions to the draft, that it hated.
The draft plan is big on ‘Key performance indicators’, but there are precisely none about the maintenance and protection of our green wedge. There is no mention of biodiversity decline or conservation, and of course no reference to any proposed activities, such as controlling fill dumping and illegal clearing, enforcement generally or any intention to address a long running issue in Nillumbik, undersized lots.
As acknowledged in the introductory section to the draft plan, surveys and other community engagement projects reveal that our priorities feature service delivery and green wedge protection at the top of the list, and business support not at all. However, within the theme ‘Sustainable and resilient’, and under the heading ‘Business and tourism’ we find four bullet points to do with supporting businesses and a ‘vibrant local economy’.
Certainly these are pretty standard phrases to be found in many council plans, but given the lack of focus on the green wedge they tell a story of priorities. This is the sort of thing that is trotted out in support of restaurants in the green wedge in Yarrambat. The concept of an ‘economy’ has little meaning at a local government level.
This is some of our thinking. But we encourage you to make submissions about what is important to you. More work on trails? Edendale Farm? Drainage? What are your big ticket items?
Relating to the council plan, and supposedly informing it, is a ‘Community Vision’. It is meant to embrace the next ten years. A draft document was approved for comment at the last Council meeting, which for some reason looks forward 19 years, to 2040! Notably, there is no mention of a ‘vibrant economy’. The extent to which this vision has informed the council plan appears to be limited!
While it is perhaps obvious that plans need to be regularly updated, this is not so obvious in relation to ‘vision’. Does the community want a change of ‘vision’ every four years? Consider the following ‘formulation of goals for the Shire’s future’:
- To conserve and consolidate the Green Wedge
- To retain the semi-rural/township lifestyle
- To preserve bio-diversity and ecological viability
- To retain productive farmlands
- To limit sub-division and prevent ‘sprawl’, confining future building to 1995 boundaries of existing townships
- To encourage the development of sustainability
- To encourage the development of environmentally sensitive/appropriate buildings
- To encourage diversity of population and lifestyle
- To retain environmental and cultural heritage
Not bad? This little list appeared in a 1997 document entitled ‘2020 vision: A PREFERRED FUTURE’.
The point here is not that our vision for the Shire has to be set in stone, but that it is like an ongoing conversation. The danger is that in the process of producing a brand new vision every four years the conversation will become shallow, lacking real substance.
Nillumbik has a vibrant, articulate, motivated and involved community whose vision and expectations for their are not met by these drafts.
The draft council plan is on the council website here, and that page also allows you to enter some comments or to upload a submission containing your thoughts. Submissions must be made by August 26.
The draft ‘Community Vision’ is here.
Your thoughts and submissions will influence the outcome! Have your say.