GE Governance


Public submissions for the draft budget and Strategic Resource Plan, have one consistent theme running through nearly all of the presentations. This is best summed up with this sentence from one such submission –

It is one thing to have a strategy and action plan in place, it is quite another to implement them. As Councillors would well know, implementation requires funded projects. It is here that Council is lacking.

Time and again throughout all of these well documented and thoughtful submissions we find similar statements. Council has policies, plans, strategies but implementation is either non-existent, or years behind schedule, and simply underfunded and/or forgotten about. This applies across all departments – from Caulfield Park implementation of the Master Plan, to bike paths, open space, the Urban Forest Strategy or the Climate Emergency. Nothing seems to have been done or certainly not funded enough to ensure real progress on any of these issues.

Then we also have the penny pinching that is so common in Glen Eira. Child care fees go up another $3 per day. Council’s persistent claims about such repeated rises is that they are on a par with the private providers. Only now the differences are made clear thanks to these submissions – ie whilst the fee per day might be equitable, council does not provide lunches or nappies. As for the car share options, that has remained static, yet for all the talk about reducing the number of cars on our roads, very little has been done to expand this option for residents. Instead fees are through the roof! Glen Eira’s car share policy first came to notice in 2016. Its subsequent policy is dated 2017-20 – hence defunct and out of date. We currently have 12 car share spaces in comparison to: Yarra – aiming for 231 in the next 5 years; port Phillip in 2018 had 181; and as far back as 2015 Moreland had 40. The rhetoric and the reality are simply miles apart on so many issues.

Council can ratify as many policies/strategies as it likes, but until there is a genuine commitment to fund such projects adequately nothing will change. Policies become nothing more than another worthless piece of public relations providing the illusion that council does give a damn about the lack of open space, the destruction of our tree canopy, and the failure to progress the bicycle strategy or provide sufficient car share opportunities. Residents should really start asking themselves whether this council’s priorities are in line with ratepayers’ thinking. Of course, ratepayers have never been provided with the opportunity to have a say in what these priorities should be before they are presented with the draft budget. In Glen Eira it would be fair to say that residents are nothing more than cash cows!

At last night’s Zoom forum on the Built Form Frameworks for Caulfield South, we had Kate Jewell (Co-ordinator City Strategy) make the pronouncement that’s in the header to this post. This statement followed resident after resident complaining vigorously about council’s reluctance to impose mandatory heights.

Here is the audio of this interchange:

Jewell’s statement tosses the ball straight back into councillors’ court. They have the power to oversee policy direction. They also have the power to pass resolutions which officers are mandated to follow. We have already had some examples of this – namely the abandonment of Amendments for Glen Huntly and for Bentleigh & Carnegie. This is no different. The question thus becomes:

  • Will councillors have the courage to insist on mandatory heights for all neighbourhood centres?
  • Will councillors, as representatives of their constituents, act in accordance with the community’s wishes?
  • Will councillors finally see the folly of this planning department and insist that the foundation for all strategic planning must derive from a comprehensive Housing Strategy that should be prioritised immediately and certainly before any decisions are made on structure plans or built form frameworks.

We also have to wonder whether Mr Slavin’s quick intervention in the above audio, cutting off the Jewell response, was that he perceived she was heading into ‘dangerous waters’ for the bureaucrats?

Year after year we have witnessed the farce that is called ‘public question’ time in Glen Eira. In the vast majority of cases no ‘answer’ is provided to the questioner. At best they receive a ‘response’. The question remains unanswered.

Residents have every right to expect that when a reasonable and relevant question is asked, council provides a clear and complete answer. Such occurrences are extremely rare.

This raises several fundamental issues of governance and the role of councillors. Given that the often carefully crafted and obtuse responses are delivered in councillors’ names, and signed off by the Mayor, then surely it is incumbent on these nine individuals to stand up and insist that questions are not simply fobbed off, but answered respectfully and truthfully. Only once in living memory has a councillor taken such a stance where he stated that he did not agree with the response.

One must therefore wonder:

  • Who writes the responses? And who finally authorises each response?
  • Do councillors actually get to see the questions before they are read out at the council meeting? If they do see the questions, when do they receive them?
  • Do councillors have any say, or contribute in any manner to the responses? If not, why not?
  • Why do councillors sit in chamber and never proffer any opinion/reaction to the response – even if they strongly disagree with what has been written?
  • How does such councillor silence engender greater ‘community involvement’ and/or faith in open and transparent government, or does this achieve the direct opposite?

Wednesday night’s council meeting provided the perfect example of this farce. We will focus on one question in particular. In this instance, a resident asked the simple and basic question about the budget – what projects had been abandoned, deferred or delayed over the past 2 financial years and what savings had accrued as a result of such delays? Here is the audio of the question and the ‘response’.  Interestingly, the sound quality of this recording is woeful. Given the millions that council has spent on technology, one should expect that public recordings provide decent audio versions.

Apart from the simple fact that this question remained unanswered, referring a resident to the budget and SRP (Strategic Resource) documents only compounds the problem of council’s lack of clear reporting. For anyone to try and make sense of what is proposed takes great effort and at the very least some modicum of accounting knowledge. Even more difficult is to remember what was contained in the previous year’s budget and to reconcile this with what is in the current budget. It should be council’s role to explain and expand on any variations. One example should suffice:  In the 2020/21 SRP we find on page 8 the following sentence: Town Hall Refurbishment – total of $8M ($2M per annum from 2021/22 to 2024/25). In the current SRP (page 12) this has changed to: Town Hall Refurbishment and Essential Safety Measures: $4M from 2021/22 to 2023/24. What does this actually mean? Is this a ‘saving’ of $4M or $2M given the different years stated?

We then have the latest Quarterly Report which does state that the Carnegie Market development has been ‘deferred’ and that both the Bleazby and Stanley Street proposed multi-storey car parks are ‘under review’. Whilst it is true that no specific funding was allocated to these projects in the current budget, and hence no real ‘savings’ per se, council could have highlighted these decisions in both its response to the public question and in its budget papers.

More importantly, given that there are frequent mentions of ‘efficiencies’ in council’s budget papers, a simple table that itemises ‘savings’ in each department would not go astray. Residents might also be interested to know which departments have had their budgets cut and by how much! Until all the information is out there in a simple, straight forward manner, residents will remain confused, befuddled, and ignorant of what is really happening to their money and how it is being spent and/or wasted.

Nor does it help create a climate of transparency when all councillors simply sit there like silent statues and accept the tripe that parades as ‘answers’ to public questions!

Council’s latest decision regarding waste collection changes has spurred much controversy on social media. Council has decided that the green bin collection will now become weekly instead of fortnightly and the red bin collection will change over to fortnightly. Food waste is now meant to go into the green bin.

This decision is supposedly based on a trial run of 1000 residences in the McKinnon/Ormond area. On the basis of this trial we now have the decision to forge ahead with this changeover.

Our understanding is that by diverting food waste into green bin collections this will reduce the amount of garbage going to landfill and also have environmental benefit in terms of reducing carbon emissions from this food waste  – as claimed in the letter dated 3rd May that was sent out to households.

We are not advocating in favour or against this decision. What we are fully cognisant of is the lack of process that has informed this decision making. When council decides something that will have an immediate and huge impact on residents’ lives, then they had better make sure that all the data is accurate, that it has majority community support, and is economically viable.

To the best of our knowledge, no formal consultation was undertaken by council for the trial and certainly none for this final decision. In other words, what is the real level of community support for this change? Nor do we know the cost of the green tidies that council has produced for distribution. We also don’t know how much the garbage ‘police’ surveillance is likely to cost. Or the cost of providing extra bins for those families that deal with nappies.

All we have to go on to determine whether the trial is in fact working and worthy of being implemented across the entire municipality is to be found in the small print of the current Quarterly Report. Here is the screen dump (page 31) from this report.

If the objective is to increase the amount of food scraps being diverted into the green bin, then the above results clearly show that this isn’t happening. So, what does this really mean? That residents aren’t embracing the change? If so, then what guarantee does council have that this will improve – unless of course they introduce a fine system to ‘encourage’ compliance! Nor do we accept the pathetic reasoning that seeks to blame COVID for the lack of improvement. Surely people still continued eating and creating food scraps regardless of whether they were in COVID lockdown or not. We could even argue that with lockdown more people would be cooking and eating at home rather than going out, so the production of food scraps should have increased! We also find it hard to buy the argument about seasons. Does this mean that winter produces more food scraps than summer? Where is the evidence for any of this?

Summing up we do not appear to have necessary pre-requisite data, or community support, that justifies the decision that has been made. Instead we are forging ahead with a project that cannot guarantee ‘success’, and has the potential to impact dramatically on countless residents. Perhaps we should simply say that this is another example of pre-determined decision making by council that ignores process and thorough testing, monitoring, and analyses.

Consultations are literally coming out of our ears over the past few years. Council’s repeated mantra is that they want to hear from residents. That residents should provide meaningful comments so that their views may be taken into account in any subsequent decision making. Sounds wonderful. But the reality is vastly different.

Time and again we are presented with surveys that deliberately avoid the central issues or are framed in such a way as to elicit the desired response(s). This approach is anything but genuine consultation!

The latest example is the Have Your Say survey on the draft Built Form Frameworks for Bentleigh East, Caulfield South and Caulfield North. Each centre has its own survey, but the questions are identical.

Here are some examples of what is presented and why this cannot be viewed as a fair, unbiased, and revealing ‘consultation’ designed to elicit real community feedback.

EXAMPLE 1

The question asked was: Thinking about the Centre as a ‘vibrant’ place, how important are the following to you? Readers were then provided with the following:

We allege that not only are these options meaningless but that they have no relevance whatsoever to what is actually proposed in the draft document. Nor do any of these objectives come close to justifying what the actual recommendations are! For the above options, clearly 99% of respondents would say that buildings should be ‘visually interesting’ and ‘attractive’. And not too many people would object to catering to the wide range of housing needed for the elderly or the young. Nor would many be opposed to supporting local businesses.  Thus we get a series of questions that literally lead most respondents to answer  in the ‘very important’ to ‘important’ range.

But how are these questions related to what is recommended in the drafts, or even within council’s current planning scheme? Will the implementation of a 5 metre setback from the street be of great assistance in encouraging ‘attractive and visually interesting buildings’? Will a discretionary 6 storey height limit, also assist in this objective? Or is this nothing more than gobbledy-gook parading as if any of these objectives can be achieved with what is currently in the planning scheme and what is proposed.

More importantly there remains the question of how council will choose to ‘interpret’ the results of this survey. Will we get statements such as 95% of respondents answered ‘very important’ and thus they are endorsing the draft BFFs?

EXAMPLE 2

The focus then turns to ‘design objectives’ with the following options:

It should be pointed out that council’s definition of ‘mid-rise’ for Caulfield South is stated to be: A mid-rise character is about building height (between 4 and 7 storeys). This idea reflects the role of Caulfield South as a Neighbourhood Activity Centre, with a moderate role to play in meeting future housing needs as well as employment, transport and services. Unless readers have bothered to plough through all the verbage prior to this point, then they would have no idea of what is proposed for this centre. Furthermore, the language used here is questionable at best and at worst deliberately evasive. What does ‘cohesive’ really mean – especially since the order of the survey has not as yet clearly depicted the proposed height limits along the various streets. Do readers really have a grasp on the fact that according to the recommendations hundreds and hundreds of metres of buildings could all be at this maximum height – and that is called ‘cohesive’?   

Also amiss is that unless readers have gone through the full documents, they would have no idea that council is proposing that sunlight only matters on the most ‘active’ part of the day. This is then defined as 10-12pm for certain streets and 12-2pm for some other streets. The above image does not relay this information. Of course, residents would respond that sunlight is vital. But this certainly doesn’t mean that they are ‘happy’ with a meagre 2 hours of sunlight because of the proposed building heights!

EXAMPLE 3

The following example if the best of the lot –

Of course height, setbacks, street walls and public realm areas are ‘important’ and should be the most important element in any planning document of this nature. But does selecting ‘very important’ indicate that residents are accepting of the recommendations in the draft document? Do residents really believe that a 6 storey discretionary height limit is what they want? Or that 2 hours of sunlight is sufficient?

CONCLUSIONS

There is much more that could be said about this style of ‘consultation’ and in particular, this survey. Until council is prepared to ask the questions that must be asked; to provide succinct and accurate summaries; to justify every single planning recommendation, then we are engaging in another sham consultation. All that is happening is that council is fulfilling its legislative requirement to undertake ‘consultation’, but nothing more. Until such a time that genuine evaluation of such processes is undertaken and reported upon we will continue to waste tens of thousands of dollars on consultations that are reverse engineered and designed to achieve predetermined outcomes.

The published draft budget contains some very interesting proposals. Below is a summary of the main ones that residents should pay attention to:

  • Proposed borrowings go from last year’s figure of $60M to the current goal of $65M and that still leaves the GESAC loan of just under $8m to be paid off.
  • The Carnegie Pool redevelopment has miraculously jumped from $51M last year to $53M this coming financial year
  • Pensioner rebates continue to decline. We are now down to the underwhelming subsidy of $23
  • The Elsternwick community Hub and park has now been further delayed to 2030 instead of the previous estimate of 2017.
  • $7M is proposed for the acquisition of open space. That is out of the current reserve sitting at about $25M. Hence whilst this proposed expenditure is a step in the right direction, we have to ask – is this enough given the long standing deficit of open space in Glen Eira? Also how much land will $7M actually buy?
  • The Murrumbeena Community Hub is fast tracked ahead of the Elsternwick Community Hub when the latter is in a major activity centre and has population forecasts that far exceed that of Murrumbeena.

There is also plenty missing in this year’s proposed budget. No clear and easily identified detail is provided on which projects have been abandoned or deferred and where the resulting allocated money has gone. For example: what is the status of the proposed multi-storey car parks in Bentleigh and Elsternwick? Have they been put on the back burner or simply gone into the dustbin of history?

Other councils do not appear to have any problem in providing their residents with tables that are easy for any lay person to comprehend. Just one example comes from the current Kingston budget where carried forward works are depicted. Nothing like this is to be found in the Glen Eira budget papers.

The budget is also replete with jargon and statements that are misleading or totally uninformative. For example, on page 16 we find this paragraph:

The City is substantially developed and while it is experiencing an increase in property numbers, these mainly arise from higher density developments. The budget implications arise in Council having to cope with replacement of infrastructure such as drains which cannot cope with the higher density. These costs cannot be passed on to the developer and are paid for from rates. The rates received from new dwellings do not offset the significant infrastructure costs.

COMMENT: At the moment the costs ‘cannot be passed on to the developer’ because council does not have a CDP, or a community infrastructure levy. This income source was removed from the planning scheme years ago. The impression that the above creates is that it is not legally possible for councils to recoup some of the costs from developers and this is totally untrue. Also the 2016 planning scheme review highlighted council’s need for a CDP, So 5 years down the track we are still waiting for these amendments to surface! Developers can (and should) pay for infrastructure, but it all depends on a council that is willing to progress the necessary amendments to ensure this happens.

Next on page 16 we have two incredible sentences:

Continued investment of resources in the Council’s Transformation Program will enable further efficiencies and enhance customer outcomes.

When millions upon millions are spent each year on such programs and technology, surely residents deserve more than some glib pronouncements about ‘efficiencies’. What is the total required? What ‘efficiencies’ are achieved? And who are the ‘customers’ that will benefit and in what manner?  

Another sentence on this page also needs detail and explanation – Council declared a Climate Emergency on Tuesday 5 May 2020. Responding to this declaration through our work program will require a substantial increase in investment.

Again, we get no detail, no projections of required investment and no timelines.

We urge all readers to take the time to assess this budget and what is proposed. Do we really need these mega projects (and without any published business cases) that will put this council into hock for decades, and what services are not receiving the required funding. What are OUR PRIORITIES as opposed to those enumerated by bureaucrats?

Council’s Urban Forest Strategy made its first appearance in August 2020. On page 12 of the financial plan we find this commitment:

Urban Forest Strategy Implementation – $3.9M

This is supposed to be over a ten year time frame starting in 2021/2, so an average spend of $390,000 per annum. Whether or not such funding is sufficient begs the question of how much is required in order to ensure the goals of increasing our tree canopy.  Nor are residents provided with any indication for the coming years as to what exactly this money will be spent on. By way of contrast, the Moonee Valley budget has set aside $900,000 for the planting of trees this coming financial year! In the Glen Eira budget, trees do not even rate a mention! Instead we have the totally underwhelming allocation of $200,000 for the planting of ‘shrubs’ in already existing garden beds in our public parks!!!!! This is euphemistically labelled as ‘densification’!!!!!

Thus a year on, one could reasonably expect that if council was to live up to its promises for decisive action we would see this reflected in the draft budget and the financial plan. Nothing is further from the truth – sadly.

A quick report on last night’s council meeting:

  • Many of the submitted public questions merely ‘responded’ to rather than ‘answered’
  • By a vote of 5 to 4 committing $300,000 to $350,000 to proceed with the ‘design’ for the Inkerman Road bike path – in spite of the massive community opposition.
  • No attempt to change the public question format – current status accepted unanimously
  • The ‘revised’ Built Form Frameworks to go out for a 6 week ‘consultation’ period. Voted in unanimously with not a single word from any councillor as to why version 2 included some changes. The officer’s report for this latest version is still to make an appearance. We doubt it ever will.

We will comment in greater detail in the days ahead.

For the second time, councillors through their voting have sent a clear message to officers,  that the latter’s work is clearly not up to community expectations or standards. Last night’s motion on the Urban Design Frameworks was deferred until next month – the rationale being that councillors needed additional time to discuss and to be provided with far more detail and justification. This resolution follows the abandonment of Amendment C184 on the Bentleigh & Carnegie structure plans.

What does this mean and what are the ramifications long term? We can only speculate, but it is becoming apparent that the planning department is being put under increasing pressure and that many of these new councillors will not automatically be rubber stamping whatever is put in front of them. That is all to the good for residents.

The only ‘negative’ from the debate on this issue was provided by Magee and his vote against deferment. His comments were insulting – ie claiming that as an old councillor he understood perfectly what the Urban Design Frameworks were all about and that there was heaps of ‘detail’. Given that this is the first time that UDF’s have been introduced in well over a decade, we can only wonder as to Magee’s ‘familiarity’ with this planning tool. Secondly, his comments came directly after Zyngier stated that he had received a letter from council and that he had difficulty in comprehending what was proposed. His argument was that when council decides to communicate with residents they need to ensure that the ‘message’ is clear, and in everyday language. This followed on from Zmood’s points that Urban Design Frameworks should not be seen in isolation but that they are the result of looking at the municipality as a whole – ie via a Housing Strategy and that data must constitute the first step.

Magee also covered himself in glory with his views on Heritage. Suddenly he has become the saviour of properties with a heritage overlay on them – or so he would like us to believe. Put simply, he stated there is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Could he then perhaps explain to residents if heritage is that important, why he seconded and voted in favour of the demolition of a contributory building and the erection of a 12 storey monstrosity on top of the heritage building next door in Derby Road, Caulfield East? For those interested we invite you to listen to his diametrically opposed comments below –

Item 8.1 last night –

AND

From November 2018 –

Consistency has never been Magee’s strong point on development and other issues. What residents must by now realise is that every ‘speech’ must be taken with a huge dollop of salt when Magee opens his mouth!

Council never fails to disappoint with its latest planning effort – the release of the Urban Design Frameworks/Guidelines for Caulfield Park, Caulfield South, and Bentleigh East.

Once again we have 3 documents short on detail, statistics, and images that are barely legible or comprehensible.

As per usual, we find adopted policies such as the City Plan being completely ignored when it comes to the latest recommendations. The City Plan specified a 5 storey height limit for its neighbourhood centres. The latest documents recommend a discretionary maximum height of 6 storeys for vast stretches within all of these centres. Why the inconsistency and how is this height increase justified when not one single piece of data is presented to account for this divergence?

Even more disappointing is the inclusion of currently designated ‘local centres’ into some of these frameworks and the recommendation that they can also reach for the skies.

We have already commented on the consistent failure of this council to conduct its consultations in an appropriate and meaningful manner. We ask:

  • Why is there no mention of this ‘consultation’ in the April edition of the Glen Eira News?
  • Why is there no Discussion Paper listing all the relevant concerns, and the potential pros and cons?
  • Why is there this insistence on a top-down approach to consultation instead of first asking residents what they want and then producing the draft documents?
  • Why is the consultation period a short 4 weeks, in contrast to some other councils that instituted an 8 week period?
  • We have not as yet seen the ‘Have Your Say’ version of the consultation, but aren’t holding our breath that the questions will elicit too many decent responses.

For all those residents living in, or near, these neighbourhood centres, we invite you to peruse these maps so that you know what this council is planning for your area and its likely impact on your neighbourhood. Needless to say, there is barely a single word about how this council will deal with: open space, infrastructure, parking, traffic congestion, etc. In conclusion, another set of documents that do nothing to instill any confidence in this planning department and an administration that is not prepared to listen and genuinely consult with its residents.

We will comment in greater detail in the days ahead.

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