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.


The Hawkesbury Floods, March 2021

Some times it must feel like our community can't cop a trick. Devastating fires, pandemic and two floods, all within a 16 month period.

Yet again, out of the distress and destruction of property has arisen the real spirit of our local community, which has rallied magnificently. The response of our SES, Police and RFS have been truly heroic, and they deserve our respect, as do those who just help because it's the right thing to do. Neighbours help neighbours. It's the Hawkesbury way.

I tried to document the effects of and responses to flooding by visiting as many places and people as I could. These videos have apparently reached over 111,000 people on social media.

Since the waters have receded, I've been honoured to be present variously at the visits of the Governor General David Hurley, The Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Minister for Roads Andrew Constance.

It has also brought the need to raise Warragamba Dam back into focus.

The plan to raise the dam is about the safety of the community – the 134,000 people who live and trade on the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplain. It isn't about development, or Sydney's drinking water supply. Nor should the debate be unduly focused on the temporary inundation of uninhabited bushland around lake Burragorang, for a week or two, once or twice a century.

The Resilient Valley, Resilient Community flood risk study released in 2017 explains 75% of our flood risk comes from the Warragamba catchment. It also points out that raising the dam would reduce the severity or frequency of bad floods by the same proportion – 75%.

Floods have already been averted or reduced by Warragamba, under certain circumstances. Severe rain events that began at the time of the early 1990s flood, when the dam was depleted to about 46% capacity, lowered the subsequent level of waters of on the floodplain by over three meters. This is the kind of 'accidental' mitigation that needs to be built into the dam permanently.

It really disappoints me that some of the commentary from people opposed to the project is so dishonest. This recent article in the Blue Mountains Gazette, and the comments of ex-Minister Bob Debus should anger everyone at risk of flooding, especially because he, like other opponents of the dam raising are usually high and dry and out of harms way. Our community in the Hawkesbury bears the brunt of this risk. I've pointed this out on many occasions.

Over the last fortnight I have stood with many people who have lost their homes and possessions because of Mr Debus' inaction in the 1990s, when there was a plan to raise the dam by 23m. The Labor government's decision not to treat this as a bipartisan issue and scotch those plans, which were shovel ready when Bob Carr was elected in 1995, is partly responsible for the damage this flood has caused.

The Canberra Times, 15-9-1995 announcing the Labor government abandoning plans to raise the dam.

Mr Debus says raising the dam won't prevent all floods. But wearing a seatbelt won't prevent all car accident fatalities. Backburning won't save every house in a bushfire. But only an idiot would argue against doing what we can.

Imagine if the present floods had been 3 meters lower as a result of being able to hold back 1000 gigalitres of that water for long enough to allow them to drain away.

When Mr Debus only notes the quarter of floods that result from rain in other tributaries, he's misleading you. And he's wrong to state that permanently lowering the dam levels by 10m is the same as raising them by 10m, because of the tapered shape of the dam. The bottom 2cm of a wine glass holds much less than the top 2cm.

And pre-emptively reducing water levels in the dam, which every armchair expert has advocated over the last fortnight would (literally) be a drop in the ocean.

The topical unit is the 'SydHarb' - A Sydney Harbour's worth of water, or about 500 gigalitres. Warragamba can hold 4 Sydharbs, and the dam raising project will add another 2. I was talking about this a decade ago. Lowering the dam to levels that would imperil Sydney's drinking water supply to create a buffer would have taken weeks, and would account for maybe 0.2-0.5 Sydharbs.

In comparison, the inflow of water resulted in a Sydharb *per day* topping the dam for 2-3 days. If we could have absorbed two days of that inflow and let it out over a week or fortnight, many of the grieving people who have lost their homes, goods or livelihoods would have been spared.

Lastly, Bob raises the debunked-a-thousand-times canard of development on the floodplain. The 1:100 flood height buildong controls will not change. Not a single square meter of land which is presently sterilised by these controls would be opened up for building in the event of raising Warragamba. And the only time any flood has exceeded the 1:100 level in the last 222 years was in 1867, showing this is a reasonable safety measure. The sad fact is that the 5,500 houses built below the 1:100 level were built before those flood height controls were implemented.

Damn you, Bob Debus, for your reckless conduct as a Minister - when you actually had a chance to do something about this, you sat on your hands.

I spoke to the media on several occasions to represent our at-risk community

Print stories: Central News (18-11-2020), ABC (27-3-2021), AAP (23-3-2021), and TV as below:

It concerns me that in each of these cases, the voice of the community at most risk is not emphasised in balancing the costs and benefits of flood mitigation.

An excellent book I have at home on the history of the construction of Warragamba Dam in the 1950s is subtitled "Thank God there were no greenies." I worry that an inability to soberly judge the necessity of flood mitigation will eventually cost lives, when a flood bigger than this one finally comes.

Nature has given us a warning. Are we wise enough to heed it?

 


The Hawkesbury's Response to the Bushfires

I thanked RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons for his leadership during the crisis.

June 8th update:
The total value of the funds received from the Commonwealth and State Government in relation to bushfire assistance to date is now $1,737,477.

The breakdown of funds is as follows:

• $1.3 million from two Commonwealth Grants of $1 million and $300,000
• $437,477 from the NSW State Government via the following grants:

Bushfire Community Resilience and Economic Recovery Grant: $250,000
• Bilpin Orchards Clean-up Grant: $187,500.

The Funding was provided to Council to “lead the local recovery efforts as it sees fit…”
Council has provided the Office of Local Government with a Program of Works detailing how the collective funding received will be utilised by Council. Further reports will be provided as required to the Office of Local Government and the Commonwealth.

• The $1.3 million from the Commonwealth Government is to be used for:
a) Infrastructure: $85,000 (e.g. clearing dangerous trees, replacing signage, communications towers, water infrastructure etc)
b) Waste, Environment and Planning: $420,000 (e.g. removal of fire damaged vegetation, trees on private property, illegally dumped rubbish and contaminated waste, expert planning advice etc.).
c) Health and Wellbeing: $560,000 from the Commonwealth and $100,200 from other known sources (e.g. recovery projects in Colo, Bilpin and St Albans, psychological support & counselling, supplementing Step by Step funding, funding additional outreach worker and community development worker etc. )
d) Business, Tourism and Industry: $85,000 from the Commonwealth Government (e.g. utilising local businesses for goods and services, 1-1 support for tourism, promoting local businesses, business recovery coordination etc.)
e) Disaster Recovery Officer: $150,000

• The $437,477 from the NSW State Government is to be used for:
a) Infrastructure:$125,000, ((e.g. clearing dangerous trees, replacing signage, communications towers, water infrastructure etc.)

b) Waste, Environment and Planning:$187,477 ((e.g. removal of fire damaged vegetation, trees on private property, illegally dumped rubbish and contaminated waste, expert planning advice etc.)
c) Health and Wellbeing: $50,000 (recovery projects in Colo, Bilpin and St Albans, psychological support & counselling, supplementing Step by Step funding, funding additional outreach worker and community development worker etc.)
d) Business, Tourism and Industry: $200,000 (utilising local businesses for goods and services, 1-1 support for tourism, promoting local businesses, business recovery coordination etc.)

My original post continues:

Our Hawkesbury Shire was one of the more severely affected areas in the recent bushfires.

Over 160 days of continuous fire operations, at the peak of the campaign there were 2500 to 3000 personnel on the fireground daily, together with multiple air tankers, helicopters and other aircraft.

The Gospers Mtn fire now holds the record as the largest fire in the world from a single ignition point. Adding the fires that merged into it, it consumed over 1 million hectares -- about 7% of the whole State. It had a perimeter 1380km long and was larger than 31 countries.

Statewide there were 2,400 houses lost (but, it bears remembering, over 15,000 houses valiantly saved).

Here in the Hawkesbury, 540 rural property holders were impacted, with 65 homes destroyed, 30 homes damaged, plus 55 outbuildings.

Little did we realise, as the smoke (literally) cleared, that within a month we would face a flood, and then a pandemic.

These events may have felt at times that they would overwhelm us. It is important for leaders to remind everyone that the victims of the fires have not been forgotten, and that a range of initiatives are underway to respond to their needs.

Hawkesbury Council's submission to the Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements submitted this week has highlighted both the praiseworthy and the "could improve" of our response.

It praises the local knowledge of brigade personnel in the Hawkesbury RFS, the coordination of out of area resources including resources offered from other states, international help, and from the Australian Defence Force. It acknowledged the success of our Community Engagement Protocols; reinforcing State and Local level combat agency information over multiple communication channels.

On the "could improve" list was a focus on telecommunications. Black spots in signal coverage and the loss of landlines from fire and tree damage to overhead cabling affected our emergency response capacity and has been a longstanding issue. Work needs to be done to make cellular towers and exchange points more fire resilient.

On this front, there is already good news, with the Federal Government's Mobile Black Spots program recently announcing new funding for three new cellular towers in the Hawkesbury, at Central Colo, Colo and Putty, and community input requested for the next rounds of the same program. I encourage you to make a submission by the deadline of June 19th.

Another significant lesson is the need to ensure that our fire defences are supported by the provision of modern and spacious headquarters to manage emergencies and provide logistical support. The need for a new, purpose built  Hawkesbury Fire Control Centre is a fight I've written about before, and which I will continue to advocate for.

The Federal Government has announced significant funding for tourism in the Hawkesbury (yes, tourism will recover after Covid-19!) through the Regional Tourism Bushfire Recovery Grants scheme.

Applications remain open for the Federal-State government’s Small Business Bushfire Support Grant. The grant provides up to $10,000 for businesses that have been indirectly impacted by the fires and whose revenue has declined by 40% (relative to the previous financial year).

At a more local level, Council is continuing to assist with the cleanup effort, especially in Bilpin, at Colo and in the Macdonald Valley.

52 inspections have been undertaken with 31 properties deemed to be eligible for clean-up assistance, with 12 properties already completed. Inspections and removal of dangerous trees are ongoing.

Property owners seeking to rebuild are being provided with a concierge service, and Council is developing a ‘Rebuilding and Repairing Buildings Damaged by Bushfire’ factsheet, which will be available through Hawkesbury Council's Bush Fire Recovery Page.

Council's Resilience and Recovery website

If you've been affected by fire or flood, it must feel like other more recent events have pushed you out of everyone's minds entirely.

You haven't been forgotten.

As (hopefully) the impact of COVID-19 subsides, we can return our focus to getting the Hawkesbury back on its feet after both the fire and the flood.

 


On the plan to build a new Fire Control Headquarters in the Hawkesbury

Recently at our last Council meeting for 2019, Hawkesbury Mayor Barry Calvert moved a Mayoral Minute to seize on the high profile of bushfires in the Hawkesbury.

In it, he advocated for Hawkesbury to build a new purpose-built Fire Control Headquarters, to replace the current facility at Wilberforce.

I know Fire Control well, having volunteered there for some years in my teens and twenties, under the then Fire Control Officer, Bill Rodger. Situated in the old Colo Shire Council chambers building, it was an ageing, awkward and pokey fit even a quarter century ago. Colo Shire Council was founded in 1906 and amalgamated into the Hawkesbury Shire Council in 1981.

At times of emergency, the place just isn't big enough. Temporary structures have to be built outside, necessitating much to-and-fro.

The Mayor's Minute was endorsed, unanimously. However, the way in which it was presented strikes me as worth further comment.

I think most people supporting such a move appreciate the sentiment behind it first, but then expect it to outlay concrete steps that lead to the desired outcome. A new, purpose built facility is a massive expenditure. Ground was broken in September for a new facility on the South West Slopes and that will cost $6.3 Million.

The Mayor's motion contained no financial commitment to either build, or even scope the ideal location and configuration of a new Fire Control Centre -- both pre-requisite in my opinion to the State government signing on for funding.

In other words, Council needs to budget money to build our case. There's little point in "initiating discussions" (as the motion says) to ask for such a significant financial commitment. Wilberforce may not even be the best location for a new facility -- some addressing the meeting nominated a number of alternatives.

This kind of wishlisting, without appreciating proper process or budgetary considerations, has happened before. As if smelling the wind, one Councillor added a clause to the motion to insist that the Wilberforce Brigade (who are co-located with Fire Control) be "fast tracked" to a new facility "within twelve months". In my opinion, this offers false hope, when Council's budget for the year has been locked in.

Michael Scholz, Captain of the Wilberforce Rural Fire Brigade addressed us and described the inadequacy of the current facility. No one disagreed. But the process of building a new fire shed involves forward planning and budgeting, and a lot of consultation. It can't be done by fiat on the spur of the moment. Two fire shed renovations in the Hawkesbury were held up for several years by spurious Native Title claims.

Our RFS locally have and continue to do a heroic job. There's definitely a case for a new Fire Control Centre. However, we have to now take concrete action: to budget, to scope our plan, to make a compelling case, and to commit to co-funding the facility. In my opinion, only then will our State Government take us seriously.