Get Engaged – Community Planning

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The Greater Taree City Council has supported the General Manager, Gerard Jose’s recommendations for a new structure of the Council. It has released the second phase of the Manning Valley Community Plan this month for more public consultation. In early 2009 the region was identified as one of the least sustainable Councils in NSW, with an infrastructure shortfall of $148m.

For whatever reasons the region fell behind in its infrastructure program, the current Council under the guidance of Mayor Paul Hogan, eight Councillors, General Manager Gerard Jose, Strategic Plan Manager, Graham Gardner and 45 Council staff implemented the first phase. Taking eight weeks, Council sought to prepare a document to reverse its low rating and address the problems.

Since its election last September, the GTCC has had a policy of transparency, making a commitment to engage the entire community when drafting a document designed to place the Manning Valley, over a twenty year period, as a leader and to be recognised as an area considered as one of the best in the state. This policy sought the community’s input to identify what residents perceived as the areas requiring attention.

“We wanted the public to be engaged and to be fully consulted,” said Mayor Paul Hogan.

“This was phase one. We have the data now, with phase two being the financial sustainability. Response has been overwhelming and very positive.

“Phase two will again allow the community to be of part of the process before we release phase three, which will be our vision for the next twenty years.”

In June this year Council began its first public forum at Taree-Wingham racecourse, where a packed house attended. Since the inaugural meeting, Council endeavoured to provide every resident with the opportunity to contribute their input in identifying the areas that concerned them the most.

More than 1,600 responses were received via face to face interviews, community surveys, written submissions and recorded comments, with all community groups covered. Forty percent of the respondents lived in Taree and Wingham, twenty nine percent domiciled on rural property, with the balance living in rural villages and the holiday areas Harrington, Halliday’s Point and Old Bar.

The first phase captured wide and varied opinions and views, with a strong message emerging from respondents. One of the tools used was a questionnaire, which asked eleven questions.

No surprise to learn that roads and bridges headed the list, with environmental management and employment opportunities also considered an important element. Other community concerns were social and educational facilities, reduction in crime and community attitudes. Tourism, heritage, culture, the Manning River, Indigenous issues and the public image were areas the community also believed needed to be included in long term plans.

Apart from the important data Council collected, responses also displayed many themes that will be the foundation for the Manning Valley Community Plan.

These themes overwhelmingly showed the community wanted the region to be a place to be proud of – a place that captured the community’s sense of identity and its aspirations for change, while retaining its country atmosphere.

A healthy economy was also a major ingredient the community saw as necessary for growth and stimulating employment.

Council has been attempting to play ‘catch up’ with the area’s roads and bridges for several years. The Manning Valley has one of the largest collections of timber bridges in any New South Wales Council area, with many approaching expiration of their lifespan. These bridges are an important link for a huge proportion of community members, who utilise them on a daily basis to commute.

Council received a clear message about the environment, with residents wanting to protect and preserve the natural landscape and beaches, seeing them as a major asset and important for the future. Another factor evident was the region needed to embrace a variety of sustainable farming practices and increase the availability of locally grown products.

“It is pleasing the community have recognised the key areas that need addressing and are behind Council to prepare this important document,” said Gerard Jose.

“The Manning’s future will be shared by all. The model we will present to the community will see a shift in the balance of priorities.”

Similar to Councils across the state of New South Wales, revenue for former sources has been diminishing for many decades. One funding source that has shrunk in distribution is revenue from GST receipts. Initially, Councils received one percent (1%), however this has been reduced by 40% to 0.6%. This shortfall has contributed significantly to the GTCC being unable to service its obligations in maintaining and improving infrastructure across the region.

“The future is not all bleak,” said Graham Gardner. “Identifying the priorities is the first step. In today’s world we have to address and approach the issues differently.”

Partnerships with Federal and State Governments and working with other Councils and establishing partnerships with organisations and businesses are seen as viable options to move forward.

“We need to build constructive Business Development Modules,” added Gardner. “Our Council is the first to approach its problems in the way we are.”

The adopted GTCC’s Community Engagement Strategy will be a key factor in directions that other Councils will pursue, with the model expected to help Councils assess and shift the balance of its needs. This survey is the most comprehensive ever undertaken by a Council, with our Council endeavouring to have its final model adopted state wide.

The New South Wales State Government’s commitment to a strong and sustainable local government system has been ignored for many years. The Minister for Local Government, Barbara Perry MP, is aware of the struggles Councils face and is keen to eventually introduce a Bill into Parliament that will assist local government.

Recently the Minister introduced a Bill following a recent final round of public consultation, integrated planning and reporting that included in the draft Bill, Regulation, Guidelines and a Manual. The specific aims of the Integrated Planning and Reporting Framework are to improve integration of various statutory planning and reporting processes, replacing the antiquated 1979 and 1993 acts. The new Bill will focus on strengthening Councils’ strategic focus, streamline reporting processes and to ensure the Department’s guidelines support a strategic and integrated approach to planning. This Bill may help Councils, but the bottom line is funding is the major component in any change. Both the State and Federal Governments need to recognise Councils’ infrastructure and services are an important ingredient within communities.

The GTCC will again be consulting the community in Phase 2, where the financial modules will be focused on community priorities, what we can afford and how best we can utilise our resources.

“We ask the community to again display their enthusiasm with this next phase,” said Paul Hogan. “It is important we get it right.”

Gerard Jose says: “It is anticipated the new structure will allow for a new direction of community, corporate, resource and asset management planning.”

> Story by Peter Lyne

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