Local Government Working Group
The days when your local council was judged on the basis of “roads, rubbish and rates” have long passed. Local Government is now a significant third level of government in Australia with access to substantial authority and resources. As such, it is an important player in Australia’s response to the climate emergency. It is for these reasons that Lighter Footprints established a Local Government Group just over two years ago.
Who is the Local Government Working Group?
The LG Working Group is a small but active group that meets fortnightly to identify and plan how to work with our local council. At present, our focus has been on Boroondara but we aware that there is also work to be done with adjourning councils especially Whitehorse.
Our primary objective is to increase awareness amongst Councillors and Council officers of the crisis the Boroondara community is facing with climate change; the obligation of all levels of government to respond to this crisis; and the policy levers available to local government to meet this challenge
We seek to achieve these goals by:
- researching and developing policy options
- contributing to Council considerations by making submissions to reviews, asking questions in Council meetings and corresponding with Councillors;
- discussing climate policy options with relevant Council officers;
- supporting individual Councillors who are sympathetic to our agenda by raising ideas and providing them with information;
- having conversations with local residents about the role of Council and the need for the community to be more active in and aware of Council matters.
Why focus on local government?
Local government is an important player in Australia’s response to the climate crisis that is threatening all life on this planet. Its role is distinct from but closely related to and equally as important as that of the State and Federal governments. This role reflects its proximity to the everyday lives of people putting it into the best position to understand community needs and to respond quickly.
Particularly important elements of this role include:
- the demands placed on local government as the first responder to the impact of climate change and the burden this puts on Council budgets to repair the damage caused by increasingly more frequent extreme weather events;
- its responsibility to protect and sustain the local environment including biodiversity, water management, vegetation and tree canopy and other aspects of the natural world
- the threats to the health of local residents caused by climate.
The framework to climate action by local government
The working group is very aware that it will only be able to achieve its objectives by tailoring its initiatives to match the environment in which local government works. The principal elements of this framework are the Constitution Act 1975, and the Victorian Local Government Acts of 1989 and 2020 which provide the legislative basis for the establishment and operation of councils. Also important is the Planning and Environment Act 1987 which covers the use, development and protection of land in Victoria and the Constitution Act 1975
Municipal councils exercise their decision making responsibilities in the context of local laws, policies, strategies and plans. The most significant of these documents from the perspective of climate policy include the Tree Protection Local Law, the Community Engagement Policy, Governance Rules, the Shade Policy, the Boroondara Community Plan, the Boroondara Open Space Strategy, the Integrated Water Management Strategy. the Tree Strategy, the Urban Biodiversity Strategy, and the Waste Minimisation and Recycling Strategy.
What is Boroondara doing to meet the challenge of climate change?
The Boroondara Community Plan 2017 to 2027
The Community Plan was a major exercise in community consultation to find out what was important to local residents. More than 11,000 people participated in various ways and their views were analysed to determine a set of seven priority themes that would influence the future work of the Council.
The environment was seen by residents as a major priority with the focus on the natural environment being healthy and sustainable for future generations. A strategy to achieve this priority was to:
Lead our community through advocacy and action to mitigate against and adapt to impacts of climate change to minimise adverse impacts on community health and wellbeing, …
As part of the Council’s Wellbeing Commitment, it was noted that
The Climate Change Act 2017 also states that Council must have regard to the potential impacts of climate change through any decision made or action taken through the provision of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008
Several of the other priorities in the Community Plan also have significance for climate action by the Council. These relate to Your Parks and Garden Spaces, Neighbourhood Character and Heritage, and Getting Around Boroondara.
Other environmental and sustainability initiatives
Boroondara also has a range of initiatives that provide capacity to adapt to and mitigate the impact of climate change. More information on programs such as Energy efficiency and renewable energy, Sustainable water use and healthy waterways, Waste management and recycling, and Sustainable community transport is available on the Boroondara website here.
The Climate Action Plan
The most significant initiative currently being undertaken by Boroondara is the development of a Climate Action Plan (CAP).
This will replace their Low Carbon Future Strategy which came to an end in 2020. The CAP is intended bring all existing environmental sustainability commitments and actions into one plan, define the direction they take in response to the challenges of climate change over the next decade and Inform decisions regarding sustainability.
To date, Council has consulted with the community in several ways. This included a phone based representative sample survey of the Boroondara community as well as an open access survey hosted online through Council’s internal surveying system. The sample survey confirmed 67% of the community within Boroondara strongly supports Council developing a Climate Action Plan with a further 22% somewhat supporting it. The figures for the open access survey were 88% strongly supporting a CAP. Check out the Climate Action Plan Research report here.
The draft CAP was endorsed for community consultation at the Council Meeting on 28 July 2021.
The aim is to finalise the CAP in September.
The challenges we face in getting a stronger response by Boroondara
The major challenges we face in getting the City of Boroondara to take stronger action to meet the challenge of the climate emergency are:
- the prevailing attitudes amongst a significant minority of Councillors that either downgrade the importance of climate change as an issue or see it in as merely a sustainability issue that affects the natural environment;
- the lack of transparency and scrutiny that characterises the Council’s decision making processes and reflects a heavy reliance on the work of Council officials, an absence of open debate in decision making forums and a culture that discourages and punishes exploration of more wide ranging and open discussion of ideas and options and rewards compliance and docility; and
- a generally disengaged community that pays little attention to the work of their local Council beyond the provision of services, shows little understanding of the scope of local government authority and makes little effort to be informed of or participate in Council decision making.
We see it as vitally important we continue to work for a stronger response to climate action by Boroondara. At the last Council elections in 2020, several new Councillors were voted in that give us hope that things can change. They bring with them a significant degree of expertise, experience and capability but are being confronted with some substantial opposition from those who would prefer to maintain the old ways. We would welcome your efforts to help us support them and to challenge the lack of accountability that currently characterises a lot of Council decision making
The Local Government Working Group has been participating in the community debate on the role and functions of local government. This will be discussed in a separate paper on this blog. At present, we are working on a Tree Canopy Project to develop a strategy for protecting and enhancing the tree canopy in Boroondara. We have also been looking at ways that we could talk to our local community to get them more aware of and involved in Council activities.
Lighter Footprints Local Government Working Group: our work program
The Local Government Group is very conscious of the need to take every opportunity to work with and lobby our local councils to obtain strong responses to the climate emergency. Some of these opportunities are formal, but many are informal and reflect our rights and duties as residents. To date, we have focused on the City of Boroondara but we are very aware that there is work to be done in Whitehorse and adjourning councils.
Our aim is to encourage Boroondara to:
- put in place a range of policies, programs and initiatives that enable the Boroondara community to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change;
- increase and strengthen its advocacy to other levels of government for changes that provide better responses to climate change;
- be more active in its work with other councils and organisations to develop a stronger understanding and greater cooperation in building new ways to address this challenge.
Leading Community support for stronger action by our councils
We already know that the Boroondara community strongly supports stronger action by their council in response to the climate crisis. This was demonstrated during the development of the Boroondara Community in 2016 and 2017 and more recently in work related to the development of the Climate Action Plan.
Much of this support reflects the strength of Lighter Footprints in the area as a disseminator of information and ideas and the informal leadership of our members take in conversations with their fellow residents.
It also reflects the readiness of our members to stand up and be counted. Many Lighter Footprints members participated in the development of a new Community Plan. As well, they made a major contribution to the current ‘refreshment’ of the plan. A particularly important factor in the election of more sympathetic councillors to the Boroondara Council was the highly successful forum that Lighter Footprints conducted in September 2020.
Local Government Group activities
The Local Government Group was established to respond to the many opportunities to make our views known to both Councillors and Council officers. Our responses have been based on research and policy papers by members. Some of the things we do include:
- Conversations with Councillors and Council officers.
- Advocate to the State Government regarding our concerns about local government.
- Submissions to the reviews by Boroondara.
- Ask questions at Council meetings.
- Participate in the Kooyong Climate Change Alliance and contribute to their work.
All of our submissions are available on the Resources page of the Lighter Footprints website. They are in response to reviews of Boroondara’s proposed budgets for the last three financial years, the Boroondara Community Plan, Boroondara’s Tree Protection Local Law, the Victorian Electoral Commission local electoral representation review of Boroondara and correspondence regarding the results of the electoral review.
Policy ideas and themes
In our work with Boroondara, we have consistently stressed a number of themes and advocated for the adoption of initiatives that would lead to a stronger response to the challenge of climate change.
There are many opportunities that would arise from Boroondara being seen as a leader in its response to the climate crisis. Local residents have already demonstrated that they would welcome stronger action. This could also be seen as a plus for local businesses by being associated with a council that is forward thinking and capable of responding to their needs.
An important demonstration of leadership would be for Boroondara to make a Climate Emergency Declaration.
To date, petitions put to the Council requesting this have been rejected.
Much of local government activity is controlled and reliant on the actions of the State and Federal Government through legislation, regulation and program development. This limits the degree of direct action available and requires skilled, well informed and consistent advocacy to achieve change that best meets the needs of the local community.
We continue to be concerned by the built environment’s contribution and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. This is a growing issue in Boroondara where there is a significant degree of demolition of existing housing and replacement with large multi-unit developments or substantially larger single houses.
3. The importance of targets for the reduction of emissions from council related activities
A critical factor that enabled Boroondara to reach its targets for council related emissions under its Our Low Carbon Future Strategy was the signing of a power purchasing agreement. The Local Government Group played a large role in this happening by providing Councillors and Council officers with information of the business case to support this initiative.
4. Initiatives to help residents adapt to the impact of climate change.
These include measures to increase usage of renewable energy such as the purchase and installation of solar panels, community batteries.
5. Initiatives to mitigate the impact of climate.
The list for mitigation measures that Council could take is long.
Some have been started include:
- Changing street lighting to LED
- Protecting and increasing local tree canopy cover and open space including parks and gardens
- Encouraging greater use of transport with less impact such as walking, cycling, the use of wetlands to manage stormwater.
All of these, however need a greater allocation of resources to have a significant impact.
Others they should be encouraged to take include measure to support the use of electric vehicles, the use of less destructive road surfacing materials and a lot more.
6. The establishment of advisory groups to work with Councillors and Council officers
Such groups would to facilitate communication with residents, and give the Council access to the expertise that exists within our community.
This is a large task and we are always looking for new members who want to influence how our councils take on the challenge of the climate emergency. We would also welcome people who could help us extend our work to other municipalities in this area.
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