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President’s Column – 19 July 2019

Local councils are at the forefront of community efforts to tackle Australia’s worsening housing affordability and homelessness challenges.

While people sleeping rough on the street in our capital cities is of course a problem, our communities in rural, regional and remote Australia are also responding to housing challenges including lack of affordable housing, or overcrowding.

Councils engage in many ways in housing depending on the issues and priorities in their communities. For example, by using excess council land or buildings for housing, collaborating with local community service providers, hosting local housing forums, or providing information about homelessness services, and helping meet housing needs through council-owned caravan parks.

Many councils also deliver or engage with homelessness services, among them:

• City of Salisbury (SA) – Assistance with Care and Housing Project which aims to support those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to access appropriate and sustainable housing.
• City of Fremantle (WA) – Solutions based approach to interactions between front line staff and people who are homeless.
• Parramatta City Council, Liverpool City Council and North Sydney Council (NSW) – All have developed Homelessness Strategies, Policies or Action Plans.

Cairns Regional Council has a guide on tropical building design which seeks to minimise housing energy costs. Many councils promote the development of low cost “tiny homes”, that can be either wheeled or permanently fixed on a plot of land. Mitchell Shire on Melbourne’s northern fringes is supporting the Transition Village Wallan project where 10 off-grid tiny homes will be built for homeless people.

At ALGA’s 2019 Regional Cooperation and Development Forum and National General Assembly, researchers involved in the ARC Linkage Project on Local Government and Housing in Australia for the 21st Century explained what local councils outside the capital cities are doing to meet their local challenges.

According to Emeritus Professor John Martin of La Trobe University, Gwydir Shire Council (NSW) works in a range of housing areas, such as owning and renting out six houses, is a guarantor for mortgages through the Regional Australia Bank, has an infill strategy that encourages ‘granny flats’, and collects rent on state-owned public housing which it uses to maintain the properties.

As University of South Australia Business School’s Professor Andrew Beer told the NGA, local governments are providing many local housing services, such as ensuring a supply of land, engaging with other tiers of government, coordinating social services, and developing and implementing planning schemes.

Professor Beer said senior levels of government often don’t understand the important role local governments can play in housing, and sometimes local councils have been blamed for policy settings not of their making.

Councils are often unfairly criticised for lack of land availability even when they are constrained by financial resources and legislative requirements. Land availability is a complex issue not simply addressed by rezoning for residential purposes.

Rezoned land also requires appropriate local and state level infrastructure and services to ensure not just a supply of housing, but the creation of liveable communities.

Professor Beer also noted that while local governments are doing good work in the housing sector, there’s a sense of reluctance among some to share that good news because of fears of further cost-shifting by more other tiers of government.

I can understand that reluctance.

Twelve councils from across regional, metropolitan and regional Australia, and the Local Government Association of SA are partners in the Local Government and Housing research project. I encourage you to visit the site for project updates, as the project is due to finish by the end of 2019.

I look forward to learning more about the various ways local government is stepping up to addressing housing needs in our communities, and sharing them with you.

David O’Loughlin

ALGA President.

New study shows worrying picture for journalism in regional Australia

16 June 2019

A new study of the media in regional Australia has found fewer local journalists available to report on local government means communities are less informed, leading to public opinion being more easily manipulated by partisan interests, undermining social cohesion.

It was conducted this year by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, and forms part of the 2019 State of the Regions report released today by the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA).

“The picture that emerges is of a sharp and worrying decline in the amount of local news available to Australians,” guest authors, Margaret Simons and Gary Dickson wrote.

“Given that numerous pieces of research worldwide indicate a close relationship between journalism and the broader civic health of communities, this decline has serious implications for the agency, power and health of citizens in Australia’s regions.”

The study confirms that the broken traditional media model has led to advertising dollars going online to search engines and other platforms, rather than traditional media outlets. Shrinking newsrooms means fewer journalists covering local news for local communities.

The authors noted that regional and rural news media fulfil a need that metropolitan media cannot, and while the ABC makes an important contribution, it cannot address the overall decline.

The writers surveyed media managers employed by Local Government Areas (LGAs) in metropolitan, regional and rural areas.

They found almost half of respondents from the metropolitan and regional and rural areas noted “some decline” or “significant decline” in local news coverage over the past five years.

“If we look at the basic news media function of reporting on local government, more than a third of LGAs reported that no journalists attended local government meetings,” the authors said.

“Although the figures suggest that some journalists follow up without attending the meeting, the indications are that a large part of local government business goes entirely unscrutinised and unreported.”

The authors concluded that fewer journalists means less public accountability of interest groups and institutions.

“Media is likely to become more partisan and selective, and increasingly controlled and manipulated by those who have the skills and interest to do so. This, in turn, is likely to lead to less social cohesion.”

Mayor David O’Loughlin, ALGA President and Mayor of the City of Prospect in Adelaide’s inner north, said he hopes the study can spark a crucial national conversation.

“The authors have done Australians a great service in highlighting a problem that affects the way local communities are informed across the country, but especially in regional, rural and remote areas,” he said.

“There are no easy answers to remedying the decline in journalists, but we need to discuss it and share ideas about possible solutions.”

The 2019-20 State of the Regions: Population, productivity and purchasing power was written for ALGA by National Economics and released at ALGA’s Regional Cooperation and Development Forum in Canberra on 16 June.

Associate Professor Simons from Monash University and the Public Interest Journalism Initiative will be among a panel of experts discussing regional media at the Forum. Media are invited to attend.

Eliminating Mobile Black Spots

The Australian Local Government Associations Federal Election Initiatives included support for communities on their digital transformation journeys. This week has seen the Minister for Regional Services and Deputy Leader of the Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie announce a number of initiatives to improve mobile coverage.

The first announcement included commitment to delivering 180 new base stations under Round 4 of the Liberal National Government’s Mobile Black Spot Program.

This includes 73 base stations specifically targeting coverage issues at public interest premises, such as health and emergency services facilities.

Shortly after Round 4 base station announcements, Senator McKenzie announced new pre-budget investments as part of the Liberals and Nationals response to the 2018 Regional Telecommunications Review, which examined the communication needs of people living in the bush.

In response to the report, the Liberal and Nationals Government will provide an additional $220 million for Stronger Regional Digital Connectivity Package to address these issues. The package includes:

  • $160 million for two new rounds of the Mobile Black Spot Program
  • $60 million for a new Regional Connectivity Program
  • A digital tech hub to improve digital literacy

The committee made recommendations to improve the experience of the National Broadband Network (NBN) for Australians in regional, rural and remote areas. The Government is working closely with NBN Co on these recommendations.

The independent review is conducted every three years to examine how people are using telecommunications services in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia.

The review held 22 regional public consultations nationwide, from Griffith to Cairns and Kalgoorlie to Katherine. More than 380 submissions were received.

The Government’s response is available on the Department of Communications and the Arts website at https://www.communications.gov.au/have-your-say/2018-regional-telecommunications-review.

For more information on the review visit www.rtirc.gov.au.