Why you should be angry about reckless election-season posturing

If there was any doubt that the election silly-season is upon us, this week's Council meeting should leave you in no doubt.

Two things in particular stand out – variations on the same theme, one might say.

Two motions came to Council, calling for us to abandon our relationship in two regional bodies, WSROC and HRCC  - one of which  we have been a member of for 73 years. I regard this as lazy, reckless vandalism parading under the patina of 'reform'.

This subject matter may feel obscure, but it's really important to understand. Here's the shortest explanation I can give you:

The Problem

In the scheme of things, Hawkesbury is a small-ish Council. Huge in area, yes, but our revenue base is only one-third of that of our neighbours, like Penrith and Hills, and less than a fifth the size of Blacktown (source data). That means that there are times where it's better to band together with others to achieve good outcomes for our community.

Sometimes we do that to save money. Shared-service models are a proven way to achieve economies of scale in procurement, insurance or service delivery. In other words, bigger is better.

Sometimes, it's because there are some issues that don't stop at Council's borders, and good sense requires a regional approach, like ensuring the health of the Hawkesbury-Nepean river.

And sometimes, we do it to stand with other local governments and speak with a common voice. When bullies (usually other tiers of government) shift cost burdens to ratepayers, overlook the concerns particular to western Sydney, or issues are more appropriate for local governments to take the lead, then it's good to have friends.

All these reasons, among others, were why our Council has long maintained membership of HRCC and WSROC.

WSROC, the Western Sydney Organisation of Councils was created in 1973 and Hawkesbury may be a founding member. If so, we've remained associated with it for 48 years because it has been strongly in our interests to do so. Councils come and go over the years based on shifting assessment of value, just like it's always been an evolving patchwork quilt of political views. But for Hawkesbury, it remains a valuable relationship for us because of our size. Our former Labor Mayor, Councillor Barry Calvert is the President of WSROC, and I am our Council's other delegate and Director, so I'd say we represent non-partisan representation. The positions are unremunerated.

Similarly HRCC, the Hawkesbury River County Council was founded in 1948 and looks after weed control and waterway health across a four Council area including Hawkesbury, Penrith, Blacktown and Hills. It's one of those bodies most people have heard of but know little about, despite the fact it serves over 830,000 western Sydney residents. It's a fully constituted Council in its own right and governed by the same legislation as other larger Councils. It just overlaps the jurisdiction of municipal Councils and has a particular focus – these days governed by the Biosecurity Act. I have been a member of the HRCC Board since 2016 and Chairman since 2019.

Hawkesbury River County Council

What HRCC does is an unalloyed good. In 2004 the Hawkesbury Nepean River was hopelessly choked with weeds. New resources allowed HRCC to clear it and another outbreak of that scale has never happened since. Recently, we kept the river clear of weeds so that our Olympic rowing team could train on the river at their facility at Penrith - and Rowing Australia have been strident in expressing concern and support for us while we've been wrangling with the State Government who have cut our operational funding for weed activities on the river. I've taken that the fight directly to the Federal Assistant Environment Minister, Trevor Evans.

There's so much good that HRCC and its staff do: It has been in the vanguard to sponsor bush regeneration schemes, like the Blue Mountains Shale Cap Forest Project I launched at Bilpin last year. I've raised awareness of its Landcare and creek health initiatives for years. Here's a lovely example of an Echidna spotted by HRCC staff working near the Friendship Bridge over Bardanarang Creek at Pitt Town, a location I've helped clean up myself, and hopefully evidence of improving ecological health.

However, at this week's Council meeting, Labor Councillor Amanda Kotlash brought a motion to Council which proposed, in part to "ask the Minister to dissolve HRCC as a County Council but keep its structure and function and annex it to one of the constituent councils."

HRCC, headquartered in the Hawkesbury at South Windsor

I think that's an absolutely irresponsible proposition, and profoundly counter to our interests. Here are the facts:

Hawkesbury Council contributes ~$200,000p.a. for membership of HRCC - about 0.2% of our income. The four Councils contribute equally despite the fact that the Hawkesbury comprises 73% of the area covered. The County Council is headquartered in the Hawkesbury (in Walker St at South Windsor). Arguably we get the lion's share of benefit from this arrangement, to which the four member Councils are bound by legislation.

These membership dues make up roughly half of the HRCC's income, the rest coming from grants and funded programs. A report we received in April stated that works undertaken in the Hawkesbury LGA in the F.Y were valued at $471,510. Further, if we were to "go solo" and become our own "Local Control Authority" it would cost Hawkesbury over $610,000p.a. to get the same results, given that HRCC has significant economies of scale, unique plant and equipment, and access to grant funding.

In short: We get massive value, hugely in excess of our membership fee, for this long-standing relationship. It works, and it works well.

HRCC's successful model for service delivery has been confirmed and reaffirmed over and over: By a NSW Independent Local Government Review in 2013, by a NSW Weeds Review in 2014, in part by the 2015-2017 "Fit for the Future" process, and now through our own Council's assessment of the costs of exiting the partnership.

Dissolving the HRCC and gifting it to one of the member Councils (she doesn't suggest which), would break the very co-operative model that has grown up between the four Councils over many decades. I can attest that the Board I lead is, with this exception, ecumenical, friendly, and supportive. The proposition to dissolve HRCC has, at time of writing, zero support from the other member Councils.

I labelled the motion reckless because the debate simply sailed straight past these facts - even the report commissioned specifically from our own staff that showed this partnership delivers outstanding value. Not a word was said that attempted to negate or contextualise that data as so wrong that breaking up HRCC after 73 years is the best option.

I'm not shy about questioning long-standing arrangements, and I have been very critical in this term of Council to ensure everything we do has an adequate justification and delivers value. There are no sacred cows for me. Why is my favourite question. HRCC wrestles with an increased regulatory and reporting burden, and like any organisation, balances the tension between admin overheads and front-line staff. But the motion suggesting that dissolving HRCC will release 'wasted' overheads for other uses is just not true.

This motion was, in my opinion, lazy and misguided. However, the motion passed. It is unlikely to result in the dissolution of HRCC given the zero buy-in of the other Councils and the legislative hurdles to unravelling. For those interested in such things, the other Liberal Councillors voted against me.

WSROC - The Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils

Five years ago, Council commissioned a report about whether Hawkesbury should remain as a member of WSROC. Frankly, that boggles me. Five years. Why this report has taken this long arrive was not explained.

Whatever the reason, the report laid out the case very well. WSROC membership costs Hawkesbury $92,000p.a, or 0.08% of our total income. Membership has allowed us to access annual joint procurement savings which exceeded $2.9M across the member Councils.

Hawkesbury specifically saved $87,000 over two consecutive years through one initiative alone - the Western Sydney Energy Program (a program that saved Councils a cumulative $15.8M over its lifetime and saved the emissions of 380,000 tonnes of CO2), and we saved a cumulative $145,196 through participation in the Light Years Ahead street lighting scheme.

Meaning, our membership easily pays for itself, to say nothing of the ability for Hawkesbury to punch above its weight as part of a larger voice for western Sydney.

WSROC has pioneered a number of initiatives involving urban heat, reducing the waste going to landfill and into waterways, hosted 48 forums on regional co-operation, met with Ministers over a dozen times to represent regional concerns, secured $413,000 of funding beyond membership dues to deliver on strategic priorities, and led conversations with government over sustainability and resilience, including with Resilience NSW Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons.

WSROC Directors with former RFS, now Resilience NSW Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons.

 

Given these focus areas, I am baffled that the Greens and left-leaning independents would vote against ongoing WSROC membership. There is simply no better vehicle for our Council to pursue issues like urban heat, climate change, energy efficiency, resilience, sustainability, and waste than WSROC. But they were happy to throw it all away to score a political point.

Despite the findings of the report, Councillor Emma-Jane Garrow brought a motion to discontinue our membership in WSROC, effective immediately.

Clr Garrow never approached myself or Councillor Calvert to ask us if we felt our membership still represented value. She's never attended a WSROC meeting. She didn't address a single word to the report that Council staff wrote to cast doubt on its statistics laying out the cost-benefit of our membership. Vague sentiments were offered about our Council being able to participate in some of WSROC's initiatives in an ad-hoc fashion as non-members, but this was not backed with any data as to which, how, or why this would be a better option for us. Clr Peter Reynolds said that WSROC has an "East-West" focus when what we need is a "North-South" focus, when that's precisely what WSROC have been pivoting to, especially in relation to the airport rail link.

Those who supported Clr Garrow's motion offered ill-informed opinions, but no facts. Thankfully the motion was defeated, with a replacement motion tasking Council to write to WSROC to ask them to re-iterate the financial and other benefits of our ongoing membership.

Those who voted to withdraw from WSROC were Clrs Garrow, Rasmussen, Lyons-Buckett, Wheeler, & Reynolds. Supporting retention were myself, and Clrs Conolly, Calvert, Richards, Kotlash, Tree and Ross.

Lazy, reckless, ill-informed decision making

I am sick of Council meetings where Councillors make decisions based on whims and personal antipathies rather than hard data. Sometimes, it's obvious they haven't read (or don't like) the data that Council staff include in the reports that come to Council. Just like I'm sick of Council staff holding workshops and briefings on key issues and finding I'm one of only 3 or 4 Councillors that turn up. This week we held the latest of eight different workshops for us to examine the decade-overdue revamp of our planning instruments (our DCP and LEP). It's a massive job, and the most consequential thing I'll do in this term of Council. I've attended all of them. Most, including this week's workshop had four Councillors in attendance for the bulk of that time. Not good enough.

In my view, this twice-delayed election can't come too quickly.

The audio of the debate that encompasses the two motions I discuss are at Council's SoundCloud account. The Business paper for the Council meeting is here.

 


A Win For Colbee Park Users – A Masterplan... And $573K in Funding!

With members of the Oakville Raiders Baseball club and Hawkesbury Sports Council President Les Sheather

 

Overwhelmingly, the biggest problem Council has with developing masterplans for our parks is there is no money allocated to execute the plans once they're made. In this term I have lamented that community consultation and masterplanning processes raise community expectations, only to dash them with no follow-through.

Take Colbee Park in McGraths Hill as an example. It is one of our most used, and most neglected sports fields. I should know, as a Soccer Dad whose child’s club was based at the park for a decade.

I've been engaged in a long campaign of engagement and advocacy to get some funding for improvements to the park.

The process for developing a Masterplan for the park has taken two years. Community consultation began in August 2019, and received a surprisingly strong response, with 152 online survey responses.

In September 2020, Council exhibited a Draft Masterplan, and I engaged with various stakeholder groups such as the Oakville United Soccer Club, the Oakville Raiders Baseball Club, and the Hawkesbury Hornets BMX Club to ask if the plan met their current and future needs. The response was mixed, with feedback mentioning limited vehicular access to the BMX track, a lack of lighting (making Colbee the only competitive BMX track in Sydney without lights), noting the susceptibility of the park to low-level flooding, and suggesting storage be moved to higher ground.

Crucially, and as was observed by the media at the time (in September 2020), no money was in prospect to build the improvements to the park.

 

Hopefully, this will change now. I moved for Council to adopt the new masterplan for Colbee Park at our meeting tonight. It was passed unanimously, and after my advocacy last year, I'm pleased to say that $573,000 has been allocated in the 2021-2022 Budget. This is not enough to complete all the improvements, but it's an excellent start. These funds will allow core or 'enabling works' that facilitate future improvements, and will benefit the whole park (not just any one user-group).

I am convinced that only by having a local Councillor continue to advocate for future budgetary commitments, will this program continue to advance. I didn't hear any other Councillor advocating for Colbee Park. No other Councillor lives in the area. I do.

Many of the earlier issues raised by stakeholders have been addressed, and I've contacted each of them to verify they are satisfied with the final plan.

The masterplan documents are available at Council's website (meeting of 27 July 2021, item 140).

Helping to clean up Colbee Park at a May 2021 Council post-flood cleanup day, with Federal MP Susan Templeman (we were the only two volunteers who turned up!)

 

Colbee Park Soccer Dad!

We should look after Jenolan Caves better

Today's post isn't about the Hawkesbury, but of a dearly loved tourist destination nearby in the Blue Mountains I am sure many of you have visited.

In January I took a few days' holiday and visited Katoomba, Bilpin and Jenolan Caves. The Caves have been a special place for me over my entire life. I did my work experience there as a cave guide in year 10. I spelunked there with the Sydney University Speleological Society in my Uni days. I hiked the Six Foot Track. I led school science excursions there for many years.

I was immediately saddened by the catastrophic damage wrought by the 2020 bushfires, and an earlier flood. But apart from the damage caused by disaster, I observed a precinct looking rather run down and worn. Essential maintenance has not occurred. Some caves are no longer shown because the paths and wiring have not been upgraded. The on-site staff quarters have been condemned, meaning people have to commute in. The small but historic on-site Caves community is dying. The caver's cottage, beloved in my memory and used as a springboard by speleological societies for research into the karst area, burned to the ground. The Devil's Coachhouse and Blue Lake walk both closed because damaged railings have not been replaced and of a perceived risk of rockfalls.

I immediately wrote to the local MP, Paul Toole and the relevant Minister, Matt Kean to seek urgent intervention.

 

I'm pleased that my call for funding and remediation works for this internationally recognised environmental treasure and tourism gem has been heeded. Today, an additional $7.9M of funding has been announced to repair damage, and takes the Government's total commitment to the precinct to over $20M.

I thank MP Toole and the Minister for recognising the value of Jenolan Caves.


What you need to know about COVID

(The text below references slides presented in the video. Watch the video.)

Recently, I went to Canberra to attend Australian Local Government Assembly.

It was a great opportunity to meet with a range of agencies and organisations to learn how to serve the community better.

We were briefed about the COVID global pandemic. Some of the statistics presented were new to me and really surprised me, and I wanted to share them with you.

One briefing was from Professor Mary Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist from the University of NSW. The professor had some chilling statistics about COVID and vaccine effectiveness.

Another was from Danielle Wood, the CEO of the Grattan Institute - a heavyweight and independent economic think tank. Danielle spoke about the economic impacts of the pandemic.

I'm relying on the notes and pictures I took of the presentation slides, and offer attribution and thanks to the respective authors.

The first insight relates to just how different the Delta strain of the COVID virus is compared to what we're used to

There are three attributes of concern in a virus:
How catchy it is, how long you can have it without manifesting symptoms, allowing people to become unwitting super-spreaders, and how deadly it is once you have it.

Delta is worse in two out of those three.

This new strain, which originated in Maharashtra State in India is between 70% and 90% more virulent than the strain we were dealing with for most of last year.

People can carry Delta for longer without realising it.

So, containment strategies are even more important - face masks, stay at home orders and lockdowns.

On the other side, there's evidence that Delta may be slightly less lethal, possibly because it seems to hit younger people, who are better able to fight it off. That makes this week's announcement that people under 40 can get vaccinated is a game-changer.

Concerning vaccines: Both the Astra Zeneca and Pfizer vaccines are overwhelmingly safe.

If there's one message above all others, it's this: please get vaccinated, as soon as you can. Book it with your GP, hop on to the Service NSW app.

According to John Dwyer, Immunologist and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at UNSW, only one person per million is likely to die of the complications of thrombosis associated with vaccination. You're far more likely to die of COVID if you're not vaccinated.

There was something on the news last night that really drove home that point:

However, there is something worth knowing about the relative effectiveness of the two vaccines, made by Astra Zeneca and Pfizer.

Both vaccines are less effective against the Delta strain than the old strain.
The data clearly shows it's critically important that you get both doses, and that your immunity can more than double after the second dose.
Also, the Pfizer vaccine is somewhat more effective overall.

But that shouldn't make you an Astra-Zeneca holdout. The best vaccine, bar none, is the one that's available, and soon. Don't wait, if there's no medical reason not to.

Next, here's what you need to know about the profile of outbreaks.
Data from the Victorian outbreak in May, and the Sydney outbreak before Christmas showed that outbreaks have peaked in 14 days, taken as a 14-day average.
The last NSW outbreak ended after 33 days and the return to baseline levels - usually seen as the necessary for lightened restrictions is 46 days.

We're at the end of the first week of the new Sydney outbreak, but these figures may have been for the less catchy strain, so we have a long way to go.

Next, the statistics overwhelmingly show that breaches in our quarantine system are to blame for outbreaks, and no particular state deserves all the blame. The NSW system fares better than most - being run by the ADF and police. Outsourced arrangements fare poorly, and the general message is that, from an economic perspective, the cost of a purpose built facility is cheaper than the cost of even a single major city lockdown.

There used to be a time when this was self-evident.

Quarantine, like the defence of the nation, customs and border control, is a Federal responsibility, not the States. It's right there in the Constitution.

Those of you who, like me, have visited the Sydney Quarantine station know that this is how our forebears, better acquainted with disease than we it seems, dealt with quarantine. The The data shows that Hotels are not optimal quarantine venues.

Next, is where we are compared to the rest of the world.

Israel have fully vaccinated 57% of their population.
The UK, 49% the US, 47%, and Singapore, 36%

At 28th June, only 4.7% of people have been fully vaccinated (although 23.9% of Australians have had one dose).

However, this is also because in Australia there have been only 910 deaths in total from COVID, while in the US for example, the toll now tops 604,000.

In terms of deaths per capita, worldwide, we are spectacularly lucky.
In Peru 5,893 per million head of population have died (x164)
In the U.K. it's 1,913, and 1,832 in the U.S.
In Australia the figure is only 36 deaths per million. That's between 51 and 164 times lower mortality than the others, and that's largely because our governments took the relevant scientific advice early and implemented measures.

We would need to deliver 155,000 jabs a month, using all available vaccine types, to get to herd immunity by the end of the year. We're currently tracking at about 110,000 doses per month.

Unfortunately, so called ‘Vaccine hesitancy' is a major risk, with 26% percent of survey respondents stating they're unlikely to get the jab.
Without herd immunity, usually cited as 85%, 90% or higher in a community, outbreaks can still occur.

A breakdown of the numbers shows that only 5% of those who are hesitant are your stereotypical tinfoil hat wearing anti-vaxxer - and I use that term advisedly: those misguided people are endangering us all.

But most people who are hesitant have legitimate concerns about the potential side effects for their age group, have particular medical circumstances, or just want more information, which is why I'm making this video.

Vaccination is safe and effective, the side effects are rare, and the benefits outweigh the very small risks.

And here's some facts about the economic impacts of COVID.

COVID delivered the biggest temporary hit to Australia's growth since records started being kept in 1930. It beats every other economic downturn, hands down

But this chart shows that not only is the relative death toll lower for Australia, but the relative economic impact has been far lower than for other developed nations. The UK, EU and Canada have all been hit harder economically speaking.

But relative to other economic downturns, such as the GFC of 2007, or the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, the overall impact of COVID has been shallower.

It doesn't seem like that, because its impact has been so much more visible and has hit vulnerable sectors of the economy. The recovery is likely to be stronger, much stronger than coming back from other downturns, because the dip was artificially induced, rather than any due to any deficiency in underlying demand.

Disposable income to Australian households is higher now than before the crisis, although I disagree with this chart because it does not show the differential effect of COVID on different people - those working in the service and retail economy might not feel better off at all.

But to employ a metaphor, the economy is running on sugar at the moment. A massive stimulus spike, funded by… us, the taxpayer.

The net result is deficits, as far as the eye can see.

Although it's worth observing, when we compare the predictions of recovery from this crisis with the predictions made at the heights of others, the track record of economic forecasters and governments only have two things in common - they are spectacularly optimistic, and usually wrong.

I am concerned that what has been termed “Modern Monetary Theory” abandons the idea of debt as bad.

Running surplus budgets and lowering public debt used to be an article of faith for right of centre, fiscally prudent governments.

My own view is that of Edmund Burke, the father of modern Conservatism:

“Society is a contract, between those who have gone before, those alive today, and those who are yet to be born”

We should not be in doubt. The money that the government has borrowed to meet the needs of the current emergency does not come from nowhere.
It's borrowed from future generations.


Raising awareness of the need for Hawkesbury-Nepean River Health

I was pleased to join the Federal MP for Lindsay, Melissa McIntosh as she hosted a visit to the Hawkesbury-Nepean River of the Federal Assistant Minister for the Environment, the Hon. Trevor Evans MP.

The purpose of the visit was to raise awareness of river health, a responsibility I share as the Chairman of the Hawkesbury River County Council, which covers four Council areas and much of the river from Warragamba to Wiseman's Ferry.

We have specialised plant and equipment at HRCC which is essential to keep the river free of weeds, and were disappointed when the State Government pulled some key operational funding last year - just as we completed the salvage, refurbishment and recommissioning of our giant 'Weedosaurus' harvester with a $130,000 Federal grant.

My belief is that taxpayers, to say nothing of key river user groups like Rowing Australia, representing our Olympic team training on the river for the Tokyo games, expect the tiers of government to work together co-operatively to undertake this critical and ongoing work.

Minister Evans was a thoughtful listener and we gave him a detailed account of the effects of the floods earlier this year, the temporary reprieve it has given us as it flushed the river, and the short-sightedness of forcing us to sell our plant and equipment when weeds, like grass, will inevitably grow back. This is a warning I have delivered before.

The above story appears in this week's Western Weekender, and follows earlier coverage back in February.

A Salvinia outbreak that choked the Hawkesbury River in 2004. We can't go back this.

 


Australian Councils deserve more help from the Federal Government

I'm down in Canberra at the 27th National General Assembly of Local Government, and it's been a valuable experience.

My head is swimming with statistics - the presentations have been excellent, covering the effects of COVID (both economic and health), initiatives to make communities more resilient, new technologies that aid in planning, communication and environmental protection. Enough for several other posts, but here are some headlines:

In 1996, Financial Assistance Grants - the main way the Federal Government assisted Councils, was 1% of Federal taxation revenue. Now, it has declined to only 0.55%, half of what it used to be. Despite the annual feeding-the-chickens announcements we're used to (like the very welcome boost to the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure program), support from the Federal government to Local governments has declined in real terms for decades.

Councils, through levying rates and charges, take in just 3.2% of ALL tax in Australia. Yet we're responsible for 32% of all public infrastructure, including 75% of roads.

COAG - the Council of Australian Governments, was founded in 1992 and was traditionally the table where all the tiers of government sat down. When that was replaced by the 'National Cabinet' last year, Local Governments were no longer at the table, and right at the time when our voice needed to be heard the most as COVID hit.

That's why I'm here. To learn, listen, and advocate for a better deal.


Saving Council money by trimming Councillor perks

At last night's meeting of Hawkesbury Council I presented a Notice of Motion to review our 'Provision of Facilities to Councillors' policy. The text of my motion is at this link.

When I was elected to Council in September 2016, I was surprised to be given a Windows laptop, a new iPhone with a SIM card, a printer, and a wireless modem & router to facilitate Internet access at home.

I didn't need or want most of these resources. I handed the laptop and iPhone back, and have never used the wireless modem router. Some of my fellow Councillors did the same. Representing the community is a privilege, and I was happy generally to use my own resources for Council business.

Frankly, the current policy is both wasteful and outdated. It refers to installing extra landlines and fax machines in Councillor's houses. It refers to arrangements for receiving a tape (an actual tape!) of Councillor meetings, even though we've been podcasting meetings for years.

I felt that the least we should do is update this policy so that the new Council elected in a few months are asked first what resources they may need – hopefully in the expectation that this will save ratepayers some money.

The motion was passed unanimously, which was very pleasing.

A new policy will be drafted and placed on exhibition for adoption before the elections in September.


Proposed McGraths Hill motel development knockback prompts litigation

Those driving down Windsor Road from Windsor will be familiar with the former but beloved Millers Nursery (a.k.a Windsor Garden Centre) on the left hand side on the corner of McGrath Road at McGraths Hill.

Opened by Ross and Lynette Miller in 1969, and carried on by daughter Bec it was a stalwart local business for 47 years. I remember it as a cosy and personal ramble – a place with nooks, and curios, and proper service. Not at all like the bland 'big box' nurseries that prevail now. Ross was active in Windsor Rotary for many years. Sadly, the business closed and the property sold in July 2016. The site has lain empty and sad ever since.

 

I mention this today because the fate of this site reveals in microcosm two things: The first is how Hawkesbury Council still has a long way to go to be a responsive, efficient public body that meets deadlines and applies our planning codes consistently. The second is how planning laws imposed by the State Government have disconnected the community from knowing much about, or having much say in Development Applications.

In 2017, the NSW Government instituted Planning Panels to determine DA's, removing the decision-making powers of elected Councils across Sydney. Planning Panels consist of unelected appointees who may have subject expertise in planning, but who are not democratically accountable to you, the citizen and voter. I and many other Councillors, including some Liberals were opposed to Planning Panels, and I've spoken at length about them before, including with 2GB's Ray Hadley.

A series of DA's have been lodged for the old nursery site to become a motel development. A pre-lodgement meeting held with Council in February 2018 indicated a desire to build a $10.8 Million, 130 bedroom motel.

DA0235/18 was lodged in May 2018 proposing a 94 room motel.

A decision on this proposal now sat with the Sydney West Planning Panel, with Hawkesbury Council staff writing a report with a recommendation for or against.

Council's report to the Planning Panel did not arrive until September 2019, over a year later. This kind of delay is itself an issue for me. Such determinations should not take so long. In October 2019 that application was knocked back, for a variety of reasons including the ability of the McGraths Hill sewerage treatment plant to cope with the load the development would place on it.

The applicants then came back with a new proposal for an 80 room motel under DA #0130/20, lodged on 13th May 2020.

I suspect not many people, even residents of McGraths Hill, knew much about any of these proposals.

76 days later, on 28/7/2020 the applicant made an application to the Land and Environment Court (case #2020/00226591) to litigate the DA on the basis of an assumed "deemed refusal", which means that the DA was not finalised or determined either way within the prescribed assessment period (which can be either 40 or 60 days).

Recently, on 31/5/2021 the application was withdrawn and a request for a refund of DA fees made, but only because this litigation was, and remains pending. A hearing may not occur until September.

In their letter withdrawing the DA, the applicants offered this stinging commentary to Council:

"It is with disappointment that we note that a lack of transparency from Council in relation to Council’s sewerage capacity issues and a lack of response from Council officers (who are too busy) in relation to the proposed on-site waste water system - which have prevented us assisting to achieve a satisfactory resolution of this development proposal."

I offer no commentary on the merits of the proposal, except to note that all applicants to Council are entitled to prompt and professional service within "best practice" assessment timeframes. If they didn't get it, I'd want to know why.

But my broader point is that, when decisions that shape the character of our neighbourhoods are taken away entirely from your elected Councillors and given to planning panels, the community ends up poorly informed (did you know about this?), and decisions are taken that you can't require anyone to be accountable for, and that's not good enough.


The NSW Productivity Commission White Paper and Local Government

The recently released NSW Productivity Commission report released by the NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet

Being a good local government representative means understanding the landscape that Councils inhabit, and the way we interact with other tiers of government. So, it's well to pay attention when the State Government announces potential shifts in policy.

Constitutionally, Local Government does not exist. This is despite a decades long campaign, which I support, for constitutional recognition. There was a failed referendum in 1988. More recently, the Labor federal government promised another in 2013, which I believe would have passed with bipartisan support, only for them to welch at the last minute.

I've always believed in the principle of subsidiarity, which suggests that decisions in government should be taken by the level that is closest to the people affected. In my opinion devolution, rather than the endless accumulation of power to higher or more centralised authorities, is not only more efficient, more democratic, but also more consonant with classical Conservative principles of government.

However, any administrative or regulatory function held by government has to be paid for. Unfortunately, 'cost shifting' has moved the responsibility for a huge amount of regulation, infrastructure, planning and service delivery - previously provided by other tiers of government, on to local Councils like ours, and thus to our ratepayers, without the ability to pay for it. A 2018 LGNSW report concluded this cost NSW Councils (and again, ratepayers) over $6.2 Billion of extra costs between 2006 and 2018. Hawkesbury Council estimated the cost to us was $6.9 Million in one year alone.

So against this backdrop, I was interested when this morning NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet launched the NSW Productivity Commission's 'White Paper' into rebooting the economy. I tuned in for the Treasurer's speech. The report makes for interesting reading, and I'll pick just a couple with relevance to Councils like ours.

One graph in it shows how the 'rate peg' has suppressed local government income since it was introduced in 1993.

This presents a mixed picture. In my time on Hawkesbury Council, I have been strong on ensuring Council lives within its means. I opposed the rate rises the dominant ruling block imposed on the community, as well as the changes to the rating formula that concentrated the rating burden unfairly on particular ratepayers.

But it also shows that this government policy has deprived Councils across the state of the ability to grow their revenue to pay for cost-shifted responsibilities in anything like the way Councils have in other states, to keep pace with inflation, population growth, or rising regulatory or infrastructure costs. The White Paper suggests that the rate peg should be abolished, or at least varied to allow Councils to better account for population growth.

The recommendation from the Productivity Commission's White Paper

No one wants Councils to overcharge their ratepayers. Equally, most people agree the State government cost shifting to Councils without providing the revenue to pay for it is unfair. Any policies flowing from the White Paper will need to ensure that abolition of the rate cap doesn't act as a green light for Councils to just jack up their rates. I think most people in the Hawkesbury don't think Council is doing the best with what they are already collecting.

The white paper also suggests that Councils should to abide by principles of 'competitive neutrality', when it engages in commercial conduct that may disadvantage other local businesses that operate in the same domain. The example it cites is Councils that run Child Care centres. As it happens, there are nine different child care centres operating in Council owned properties around the Hawkesbury, who enjoy a substantial subsidy. This report presented to Council in October 2018 says it best:

The white paper makes this recommendation on p169:

My own view is that the various childcare centres around the district are worth supporting, and the 'subsidy' of facilities run from Council properties (effectively, an opportunity cost to Council in terms of foregone revenue) provides a direct and valued support to the community. I believe Council addressed the issue of centres taking an unfair advantage over their fully commercial competitors when it inked an agreement to ask those providers to contribute to a multi-year 'building renewal fund' to acknowledge the benefit they received from operating from Council properties, amounting to $1.5M over the life of the agreement.

I am glad that the NSW Government has been so effective in supporting our State economy during the worst economic dislocation for generations. This White Paper is not a policy manifesto, nor is it legislation. It's the start of a conversation, and a very timely one about how to continue economic reform and streamline co-operation between local government and the State.


Oakville Oval needs an upgrade

Oakville Oval is one of 23 different playing fields, and one of the 215 parks and reserves around the Hawkesbury.

I've been a user of the oval all my life. I remember attending Oakville Public School sports carnivals there as a boy, kicking about kerosene-soaked fireballs when I was in Oakville Scouts (probably an OH&S nightmare now), and now witness my nephews play there as a soccer uncle.

Given the amount of use by the community, I feel Oakville Oval is looking a little tired and needs some care and investment.

Upkeep and development of our sporting fields is managed by the Hawkesbury Sports Council, who maintain two and five year plans for all local Ovals. In preparing those plans the Sports Council seeks submissions from sporting clubs and users of specific ovals. I was surprised to learn that, at the time the last plan was drawn up, no responses were received from the clubs that use Oakville Oval. I strongly encourage them to make a submission for the next round that will be called for the 2021/2022 financial year, and will be reaching out directly to make that appeal.

Council is aware of the increased use of the oval particularly during winter sports and the increases in parking and traffic. We've all seen the cars spilling on to the road, and the 'car park' is really just an abandoned gravel depot that turns to mud in poor weather.

The Sports Council advise that other suitable ovals in the area are used in conjunction with Oakville Oval wherever possible to spread the sporting community’s needs across the city.

Shipping containers used as storage at Oakville Oval

I've always thought that using shipping containers to store equipment like rollers, goal posts and nets is ugly and less optimal than lock-up colourbond sheds on slabs with roller doors. However, I am informed shipping containers are considered a better alternative due to their sturdiness and they deter vandalism due to their locks and wall thickness. If you have a different view, please let me know.

Currently there is one shelter area at the Oval and some seating available around the canteen building. Due to the high level of use for various sports there isn't much room to install further shade areas without impacting on the current uses. There is also damage from the shade trees occurring to the on-field area in front of the containers as this area gets no sun. I am told that planting of additional trees might only compound this problem.

Hawkesbury Sports Council have planned to upgrade the irrigation system this year due to the field having to be returfed each year due to increasing use by the soccer club. Following the recent floods and damage to other grounds, the Sports Council has voted to place on hold all capital works until such time as the financial effects of the flood is clearer.

The Sports Council assigns its works program across all sports grounds and prioritises these as required. Where grant or other funding opportunities become available Council and the Sports Council will seek funding for upgrades, including the car park area. In addition, Council is currently planning for the development of Fernadell Park in Pitt Town. This development is subject to funding however, once developed, it will provide additional fields that can be used by the local sporting clubs and reduce demand on Oakville Oval.

Council will ultimately prepare a full masterplan for this and other reserves. I will be continuing to call for a long term plan, and sustained funding for improvements, on behalf of the residents and users who gain enjoyment and use of Oakville Oval.

Canteen and amenities at Oakville Oval