Infrastructure Australia’s landmark 15-year plan for reform contains much food for thought for local governments.
While the bulk of media attention has settled on which big projects get the organisation’s tick in terms of demonstrable economic need – near the top of the list being Brisbane’s Cross River Rail – the report also delves into the structural and legislative reforms it believes are needed to ensure Australia remains an attractive place for business and investment growth.
The local government sector in Queensland is already well ahead of sectors in other states in implementing several of the changes IA urges.
Most notably, the report calls for reform to “consolidate the number of councils and increase the efficiency, service quality, financial viability and strategic profile of local government”.
In other words, a process of council amalgamation that Queensland has already gone through but other states have yet to embark on.
On road funding, Infrastructure Australia says that while Canberra has diverted significant investment in local roads through Roads to Recovery and the Black Spot programs, the funding effort should focus more on addressing “first and last mile constraints” on the nation’s road network.
And on water policy, the report calls for audits to inform “pathways to more sustainable models” including shared services and the like, a reform that is core to the investigations under the Queensland Water Regional Alliance Program (QWRAP) model implemented across much of the state outside the urbanised southeast corner.
The Local Government Association of Queensland has highlighted the need to revive and refresh a formal agreement with the State Government to ensure councils were properly included in major infrastructure planning.
Appearing before a public hearing for the Building Queensland Bill 2015 on Monday, the LGAQ’s general manager of Advocacy, Greg Hoffman, outlined concerns surrounding State Government agencies’ “ad hoc” interaction with councils when implementing projects.
He said the issue was of vital importance to local government, which owned almost $90 billion worth of critical public infrastructure across Queensland in 2013-14.
“One of the significant, dare I say, aggravations for local government in its dealings with State Government is how the State, in the planning for and development of its own infrastructure, has a very inconsistent approach to its interface with local governments,” Mr Hoffman told Parliament’s Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources Committee.
“The issues are around hospitals and schools, probably, as the largest infrastructure pieces that can impact.
“Of course, there are bigger projects.
“But where the on-site and off-site implications of what the State is doing in terms of its own infrastructure impacts on local infrastructure, then we are very keen to see an improved approach to how that interaction occurs.”
Mr Hoffman said a memorandum of agreement was established between the LGAQ and the Borbidge Government in 1997 to improve the working relationship between state and local authorities during the planning and roll-out of infrastructure projects.”
But the agreement had since lost its impetus because of changing governments and needed to be updated to ensure the impact on councils was reasonable, particularly in regards to financial arrangements, he said.
“It is relevant in that it does identify what councils are expected to do and what they can reasonably do and how there is a cost apportionment,” Mr Hoffman said.
“It basically talks about how certain things will be paid for by the state, certain things will be done by local government and where there is a crossover there is a 50-50 cost-sharing arrangement agreed upon.
“Of course, we would argue that perhaps that cost sharing should be a little more in favour of local government than it is at 50-50, but in the absence of a reference point it is valuable in the debate as to what is fair and reasonable.”
Mr Hoffman told the committee the LGAQ fully supported the creation of Building Queensland for the provision of independent advice to the State Government on infrastructure matters.
“The objective and transparent review of the merits of infrastructure projects should be an essential component of every infrastructure program and the LGAQ welcomes the state’s commitment to a robust assessment of its infrastructure proposals,” he said.
A win on the asbestos management front, a draft plan to control flying foxes and a television commercial to be aired during the football finals are among several items on the agenda at LG House next week.
The Local Government Association of Queensland Policy Executive meets on August 27 to debate a long list of important matters including policies, plans and projects.
LGAQ president Councillor Margaret de Wit said tireless campaigning by the association was beginning to reap rewards as the Palaszczuk Government settled in for its term.
“Meetings, consultations and advisory groups are starting to find form and are producing plans for implementation and delivery of projects that will affect local government in the immediate and long-term future,” she said.
“Senior LGAQ staff have been working hard to reverse decisions, improve strategies and influence legislations changes.
“There are plenty of runs on the board and we have won some key points along the way.”
Cr de Wit said Policy Executive members would discuss a range of issues and initiatives including:
Executive members will also have the opportunity to provide feedback to a television commercial to further promote the Better Councils, Better Communities media campaign.
The 30-second advertisement will be aired in Queensland’s metropolitan and regional markets, as well as on Imparja, for six weeks starting 20 September.
The commercial is being launched ahead of the LGAQ Annual Conference and also aims to capture football finals audiences.
The LGAQ has welcomed the Commonwealth Government’s announcement to fund 68 new base stations in rural and regional Queensland which will improve mobile phone coverage on main highways, development roads and communities as part of its $100m mobile blackspot program.
LGAQ CEO Greg Hallam said many small communities, such as Adavale, Darnley Island, and Urandangi, as well as the travelling public and industry would benefit from the improved coverage.
“This is a great improvement for many small areas because of our reliance on mobile technology for voice and data uses,” Mr Hallam said.
Importantly, the Commonwealth has also announced that its will fund a new $60m Round 2 of the program allowing communities that missed out in Round One to have another chance. The funding will become available from July 2016.
Telstra will build 61 new or upgraded bases station while Vodafone will build seven new sites. In addition Telstra will also roll-out 50 mini base stations in areas where existing infrastructure can allow a low-cost solution.
There is also a possible strategic benefit as the additional mobile-phone coverage could provide an alternative access data services from satellite.
Mr Hallam said it’s a great funding outcome where Telstra and Vodafone invested almost $165m and $20m respectively and a total of $385m will be spent for 499 sites nationally.
“We also thank the Queensland Government for making a $10m contribution to the project, which means that a large number of these sites were only possible because of their support,” Mr Hallam said.
In addition to the State funding, about 12 Councils, industry and community groups contributed more than $800,000 to ensure their regions would benefit from additional coverage.
The Telstra base stations will use the latest 4GX technology which is in a low radio frequency (700Mhz) and provides significant data speeds, area coverage and building penetration.
Local government’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones as they are more commonly known, was put on display in Bundaberg this week, with more than 40 businesses and council representatives from the Wide Bay region discussing the technology.
Hosted by the Bundaberg Regional Council, the forum attracted councillors and senior staff, drone experts V-tol, law firm King and Co, neighbouring councils, the LGAQ and LGIS.
Key topics included the legalities of introducing council drone services as well as the benefits of using drones as part of asset management, pest and plant management, disaster management and mapping.
Councils also focussed their obligations in investing in drone technology.
LGAQ chief executive Greg Hallam said drones were a text-book example of where buying a service instead of investing in the asset should be a key decision for any business model.
“The devices themselves are rapidly changing, not only in design and capability, but in areas like camera lens optics and battery life – you can quickly invest in a technology orphan,” Mr Hallam said.
He said another major issue for councils was the regulatory environment.
“The Civil Aviation Safety Authority is effectively treating these devices as aircraft so there are stringent requirements around users being properly accredited, devices meeting specific standards and a plethora of record keeping involving things like flight plans, log books and maintenance,” he said.
“Even if you meet these requirements, consideration then needs to be given to ensuring the data that is captured is able to be used and stored securely, while able to be integrated with existing Council systems,” he said.
At the Bundaberg demonstration day, fixed wing and rotor drones captured different types of data using mapping and infra-red sensors from the Qanaba Landfill.
A report showing the interpretation of the data, down to 10mm accuracy, was completed that afternoon, demonstrating the quick turnaround time from capturing the data to being able to make analytical decisions.
The LGAQ’s Bush Councils Convention in St George on 29-31 July will also feature a presentation and live demonstration of drone technology.