Statements on reports – Environment, Natural Resources and Regional Development Committee: sustainability and operational challenges of Victoria’s rural and regional councils

Mr J. BULL (Sunbury) (10:08:37) — I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the interim report by the Environment, Natural Resources and Regional Development Committee on its inquiry into the sustainability and operational challenges of rural and regional councils. I will pick up where I left off in a former contribution.

What we know in considering those factors that do play a significant role in rural and regional councils is that the committee considered a number of factors that feed into the process around how these municipalities operate. It has identified them in the interim report, those being local government funding and budgetary pressures; the fairness, equity and adequacy of the rating systems around those municipalities; the impact of rate capping policies; the capacity of rural and regional councils to meet responsibilities of flood planning and preparation; and the maintenance of flood mitigation and infrastructure. Of course the maintenance of local roads and bridges and what comes with that are the responsibility of municipalities to address, as is weed and pest animal control. I mentioned in a previous contribution the long lengths of rural and regional roads and the amount of investment that goes into not only maintaining them but controlling the weeds and pests alongside those significant and important carriageways.

The interim report identifies that there is great diversity and great disparity between many of our rural and regional councils, and what comes with that of course is great variance, not just between those that are metro or peri-urban and those that are rural and regional. Inside those rural and regional councils, what are the factors that determine how they are able to operate? Do they have a reasonably large regional city or town, or does a collection of smaller townships make up the municipality? Therefore what are the pressures that face these municipalities?

There are a number of factors that impact how our councils operate and their ability to deliver services and to respond to the needs of changing communities. One thing that was identified and discussed at great length was what core responsibilities those municipalities are able to provide and what core responsibilities the people within the community expect and deserve. This was a large discussion for the committee. I am sure in the tabling of the final report we will go into greater detail around what services must be provided and what services go above and beyond a municipality’s capacity to provide.

The report highlights a number of areas for further investigation. They of course will be discussed in the final report, which is due to be tabled at the end of the month. The report references a number of councils that the Whelan report and the Auditor-General have discussed at great length. There is discussion on those municipalities that are at most risk across Victoria and the areas that were most commonly assessed to be within the medium to high-risk category. Issues around internal financing and the ability for a council to finance expenditure on infrastructure from cash flow are also discussed, as is how the rating system feeds into that process and how the rating system is able to be used. There is also discussion on the variance in rates — who pays what at which time — and how fair they are right across Victoria.

We know that there are a number of councils that have identified significant risk factors, and they will be identified as we move to the final report. There are challenges, which include the disparity of what you can charge for and what you cannot. If you take parking, for example, the revenue that is able to be generated by our inner-city councils through parking fees as opposed to those in rural and regional areas is significantly greater. In some councils they are not able to generate any revenue at all. I will make further comments after the final report is tabled by the end of March.