A series of combative exchanges between senior City of Ballarat officers and state government MPs during a recent parliamentary inquiry into the challenges of growing populations has revealed council's frustration with planning regulations and outcomes, but also brought into question council's preparedness for the inquiry.
The City of Ballarat appeared at the Legislative Assembly Environment and Planning Committee Inquiry into Environmental Infrastructure for Growing Populations on April 21.
Council officers Natalie Robertson (director, Development and Growth), Bridget Wetherall (director, Infrastructure and Environment), Steve Van Orsouw (executive manager, Operations, Infrastructure and Environment), and Joanna Cuscaden (executive manager, Development Facilitation, Development and Growth) were named as witnesses.
The City of Ballarat went to the inquiry without making a submission, in contrast to detailed prior submissions made by other similar councils. The City of Bendigo provided three in-depth submissions; the City of Mildura provided an 11-page submission; and the City of Greater Shepparton, made a five-page submission.
Those three councils made these submissions well within the committee's December 2020 deadline, whereas CoB made its three-page submission to the inquiry two days after appearing before it in April, four months after deadline. Council says it was granted an extension, and the submission was voluntary.
We have been limited through council budget planning, which is overseen by councillors, in the resources we have had to manage those increases in assets, because there are great priorities elsewhere.Bridget Wetherall, City of Ballarat
Labor party MP Will Fowles was left unsure of what CoB was bringing to the inquiry.
"We are sort of flying, I guess, a little bit blind here," Mr Fowles said.
"Normally in these hearings we have a submission from the parties or an opening statement about what it is that you would seek to have changed."
Questioned about the CoB urban forest action plan, which has a target of 40 per cent tree cover for Ballarat by 2040, Ms Robertson said the target was 'on track' - if the budget was 'upscaled'.
However in its post-supplied submission CoB admits it is falling behind in tree planting.
"Council currently funds $500,000 per year for tree planting which yields approximately 1500 trees per year. In order to reach the target of 40% we have deficit of 120,000 street trees."
All four officers told the inquiry the City was struggling to meet maintenance levels because of the swelling population, staffing, resource and budget constrictions.
"...we are not able to keep up with the level of service that the community is expecting or that we would like to see to make sure that we are managing risk when it comes to the safety of tree management or with parks or with other facilities that we are offering to the community," Ms Wetherall said.
Obviously our asset base has increased, so additional trees, parks, open space. The west side and south side of Ballarat continue to grow as these assets are gifted to council after an 18-month period. That requires my staff to then maintain these to the existing levels of services that are identified in the Ballarat Open Space Strategy, and that puts more pressure on my staff to be able to stretch themselves with the current assets that we have got, like lawnmowers and staff, which are not increasing over the period of time, which need to increase with what is handed to us.Steve Van Orsouw, City of Ballarat
But it was an exchange between Labor MP Danielle Green and the officers which unsettled things, after Ms Cuscaden and Ms Robertson questioned whether state government policies supported best practice environmental and planning outcomes.
"...we can be as ambitious as we like... with our licences and schedules and zones or local policies... but unless the state government is able to support those ambitious planning policies... we raise expectations within the community through those processes, and then often council gets to the planning panel and then it gets sent back," Ms Cuscaden said.
"In the context of this hearing here and feeling like we do a magnificent job trying to achieve what we do and not liking the course we are heading down in the way of questioning ... we think state policy can be better, we think strategies can be better," Ms Robertson added.
Ms Green drew the officers' attention to the environmental plans of the City of Whittlesea, which she said had won UN awards.
"I was sort of reluctant to be a bit prickly here, but I have doorknocked in Lucas. I drive through the west of Ballarat all the time. Ballarat is a beautiful city, but Lucas is just really letting the side down," Ms Green said.
"I feel like you need to be asking your developers to do more, whether it is planning controls or whatever it is."
Ms Robertson responded, saying Lucas had a 'spectacular central park" and the area was still "young and immature".
"I know the developers will be disappointed to hear that, who are very entrenched in Ballarat and very proud of the product," she said.
State policy needs to support your local policy. That is how I would frame it, and state policy is not as strong in areas that it should be.Natalie Robertson, City of Ballarat
The inquiry, established in August 2020, has taken 264 submissions on "current and future arrangements to secure environmental infrastructure, particularly parks and open space, for a growing population..."
Contributors include huge government departments like DELWP; large bodies like the Planning Institute of Australia and the Housing Industry Association, The Victorian Planning Authority down through urban and regional councils to community groups and individuals.
Ballarat's Friends of Canadian Corridor made a 26-page submission.
The Courier twice addressed the following questions to the City of Ballarat:
- why did the City of Ballarat not make a contribution until so late?
- did anybody from the executive team watch any of the livestreams from previous hearings to get a sense of the inquiry? If not, why not?
- did anybody from the executive team read the submissions from other councils before the council appeared? If not, why not?
- what confidence can we have as residents and ratepayers that council officers are going to be able to advocate for our broader interests as the city grows when they have been so off the pace with this?
City of Ballarat did not address the questions, and responded with the following statement, attributed to director Bridget Wetherall:
"The City was invited to and agreed to participate in a public hearing to support the inquiry into Environmental Infrastructure for Growing populations on April 21, 2021.
"Two Directors and two Senior Managers attended and addressed the Inquiry Panel and were granted an extension to make a written submission that was forwarded on April 26, 2021.
"Key points raised by the City of Ballarat were similar to many other regional Councils: The effectiveness of existing legislation and planning provisions in securing environmental infrastructure; The impact of population growth in our regional area on the provision and preservation of environmental infrastructure; Opportunities for funding assistance to support community groups such as Friends of and Landcare groups.
"The submission outlined the City's Urban Forest Strategy which seeks to deliver a 40% tree canopy target by 2040 ( which Council has committed $500,000 to in its draft budget); and its commitment to identify opportunities to better plan and provide a range of opportunities for current and future residents to enjoy the local environment with access to the open space corridors of the Yarrowee River and Canadian Creek tributaries together with over 2000 hectares of parks and gardens including local, district and regional level neighbourhood parks.
"The City is pleased to have had the opportunity to address and make a submission to the public inquiry and looks forward to the final report and its recommendations."
The Courier made several representations to the inquiry chair Sarah Connolly MP, Danielle Green MP and David Morris MP for comment. No MP responded.