Local Government is the level of government closest to the community. From this it would be expected that one of the important functions of Local Government would be in creating and building community. But is this the case?
Some Quick History
In Australia there are three tiers of government: Federal, State and Local. Of the three local is the only one not included in the Australian Constitution. There have been two attempts to rectify this via referendum. Both of these attempts have been unsuccessful. The current situation is that local governments exist at the whim and discretion of state governments. This is controlled through various legislative tools, the most important being the local government acts controlled by state government.
Local government grew out of the need to control and plan infrastructure such as roads, water, footpaths, developments, waste management, planning. Its basis is in the physical infrastructure. Other roles were added as the need arose or as state and federal governments passed responsibility to local government. This resulted in local councils being involved in child care, aged care, housing projects and community development. As the non government service sector has developed and legislative requirements or other guidelines have become more complex many councils have withdrawn from some of these areas of service such as child care.
Legislatively requirements to provide for social responsibilities has changed in some jurisdictions. Ten years ago it was a requirement for Councils in Queensland to produce a Community Development Strategy. This is no longer a requirement. Although the Queensland Local Government Act is under review there is no intention to reinstate a planning requirement for such a strategy or an intention to refer to social justice principles. Similarly, NSW had a requirement for Councils to produce Social/Community Plans. This requirement was removed some years ago and replaced with an Integrated Planning and Reporting requirement. This includes a Community Strategic Plan. The NSW Local Government Act makes reference to social justice principles.
Most councils however, retain Community Development/Service units. These staff work with service providers and community members. The degree of involvement or grassroots work is determined by how traditional or progressive each council is.
The Argument for Increased Community Building Actions from Councils
Just as councils plan and build the physical infrastructure that results in our towns, villages, suburbs and cities it is equally important for communities to be also planned and built. It is fine having parks, gardens and concrete infrastructure but it is also important to have strong, vibrant, safe and diverse communities to use these places. This community building should always be asset/strengths based from the grassroots up. It needs to be a participative process with members of the community having a strong voice.
Every Council already have a presence with libraries, arts facilities, and entertainment venues. They already have a stake in important community infrastructure likewise they need to have a stake in ensuring that community is created to use these facilities.
Community building would save money. As communities develop, become connected and gain a voice they will also demand a role in caring for their neighbourhood or suburb. This has the potential to save councils financially in the maintenance of parks and gardens; a community with a voice will also report damage or vandalism quickly to authorities so that it can be repaired quickly. This means the asset will not deteriorate further.
A strong community will no longer be a passive population expecting others to do what they can do for themselves. Since midway through the 20th century communities have been trained that they have no power and that everything must be done for them. But a connected community working from their own asset base can do so much from creating a safe place to maintenance and repair or even creation of valuable assets.
All these actions have the potential to save councils and rate payers.
How can we make this happen?
Councils are bureaucracies. They operate from a top down process. Decisions are made from above and followed through by staff below. Actions and projects are usually planned in linear fashion with important benchmark points observed. However, community building operates quite differently from a bureaucracy. They operate from a bottom up, grassroots approach. This is rarely linear in nature but is more like a helix ie discuss, plan, act, and review. Almost circular but not as the review phase will mean changes. For councils this will mean that requests and actions will appear to come from left field.
To counter this communities need to be vocal and use processes already available for this voice to be heard and acted upon. This may mean letters to the council, representations to councillors, petitions, letters to media, attend any consultation the council makes available, make comments on social media, and attend council meetings when necessary. Often if one person speaks up it will be seen to be the voice of the minority but when more speak up and communities make joint representations their voice will begin to be heard.
Citizens not customers or clients
Councils are elected through a democratic process. But our democratic rights and responsibilities do not end every four years at the ballot box. They are ongoing. Like many areas of government councils have adopted the language of the corporate sector and we cease from being citizens but customers, clients or consumers. Neither of these terms are accurate or adequate. Councils are not like retail outlets. We don’t have a choice over using their services and don’t have a bargaining power with them. The language is important and needs to change. Being a citizen implies participation in the democratic process, not just a passive relationship of business and consumer. If communities used their combined voice and called for participative decision making processes, real engagement and demanded local government become involved in the lives of communities then perhaps some positive community building could occur.