Put a group of around 40 randomly chosen people in a room and ask them to come up with priorities on spending and revenue strategy for council. What do you get? Sustainability as a key priority; roads and parking spots ripped up for bike lanes; more open space; and increasing rates to pay for it all.
Most people would think it sounds like political suicide, but confronted with all the information and access to experts, this is what the average City of Melbourne resident has called for as part of the first People’s Panel on the city’s 10-year financial plan.
What’s more surprising is the council has unanimously accepted the document in its entirety, on Tuesday night voting to embed it as a whole into the city’s draft 10-Year Financial Plan.
The document will now undergo analysis and financial modelling to determine if, how, when and the extent to which each of the 11 recommendations can be acted upon. If any of the 11 recommendations made by the people’s panel is not taken up, council will need to explain why not.
The challenge for the panel was to answer how Melbourne could remain one of the most liveable cities in the world while maintaining a strong financial position into the future.
The panel – 43 people comprising residents, businesses and students to represent a snapshot of the community – underwent six sessions of Saturday deliberations, where access to councillors and experts was arranged. According to a City of Melbourne spokesman, access to experts was self-directed and entirely at the discretion of the panel, and included government architects and sustainability consultants.
A new approach to democracy
These people’s panels, or citizen juries, are part of a push by the newDemocracy Foundation, a project begun by public policy advocate Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, to have better input from the community into government decisions.
- See our previous story Melbourne’s budget goes before a citizen jury
newDemocracy executive director Ian Walker told The Fifth Estate the process worked to address a fundamental issue: “that citizens don’t trust decisions made by politicians”.
Mr Walker said a random selection of citizens didn’t have the impairments placed on public office bearers, and were more trusted by the public.
There were “some uncomfortable things” in the panel’s solution, he admitted – particularly rate increases, which caused consternation among some councillors – because politicians rarely talked about how things would be funded.
“It always makes sense to promise people new or free things, but [politically] it doesn’t make sense to say how you’ll pay. But engagement with the community should not be a wishlist exercise; it should be a tradeoff exercise.
“If you don’t include how to pay for it it becomes hard to implement.”
And that’s what the citizens have done: made trade-offs around rates and capital works to fund initiatives that will see the city retain its high level of liveability and stay a leader in sustainability.
Urban planning perfect for citizen juries
Urban planning in particular was an area where people’s panels could prove invaluable, Mr Walker said, because there was a high level of scepticism around government actions and decisions were open to much criticism.
He said people’s panels helped to remove the trench attitude, where it was developers on one side and community action groups on the other, much like what happened with the failed NSW planning reforms.
This battle between opposing lobby groups often confused government as to what the average person wanted, Mr Walker said.
“One of the hardest thing for people to grasp, particular officials, is that community groups and the community are two different groups of people.”
Governments were excellent at listening to these “insisted voices”, but needed to hear from “invited voices” – the silent majority.
Legitimacy was the key positive for governments going to a people’s panel on planning issues, Mr Walker said, as the public was much more likely to trust the decisions of 40-50 random people than they were the government.
“Processes like this puts more alternatives on the table,” he said.
Through the process Melbourne may gain more licence to operate, and enact solutions that traditionally might be seen as no-go zones.
Mr Walker said the process took a lot of bravery from governments, and only those who didn’t have preordained outcomes and were open to a range of solutions would benefit.
Projects like NSW’s Bays Precinct, where the atmosphere is one of government mistrust, may have a lot to gain by implementing people’s panels, he said.
Next for the City of Melbourne
Councillor Stephen Mayne, who is chair of the finance and governance portfolio, said the detailed work that had been done by the 43-person panel was a first for the council, and a process that was invaluable.
“The work the People’s Panel have done deserves to be embedded in the 10-Year Financial Plan in full, and while Council remains the ultimate decision-maker, we will be very clear on whether we accept certain People’s Panel recommendations or not, and why,” he said.
“The People’s Panel have given us very clear advice and guidance and it is a testament to the quality of that advice that we are incorporating the panel’s recommendations into the draft 10-Year Financial Plan in full.
“No government is adopting a business as usual approach to the allocation and prioritisation of resources within the context of climate change, population growth, advances in technology and a volatile global economy.
“We undertook this process to encourage people to help Council make more consultative decisions. What we have is a report that addresses all of these challenges and opportunities.”
The People’s Panel 2014 acknowledges that rate rises are required in order to meet both operating and capital budget requirements. The panel recommends that rates be increased by CPI plus up to 2.5% pa for the next 10 years.
Environment, Sustainability and Climate Change
“The People’s Panel 2014 recommends that as a matter of priority the City of Melbourne allocate the necessary (increased) funding to its plans to address climate change, so as to protect our existing assets, systematically reduce our carbon footprint (pro rata), maintain the liveability within the city and provide leadership on this issue within the municipality.”
The panel said it wanted the city to be bold, creative and innovative in terms of (but not limited to):
- Tree coverage
- Solar panels
- Vertical gardens
- Community gardens
- Nature strip gardens
- Educational programs
- New technologies
- Strategies for waste management and recycling
The People’s Panel 2014 recommends that the City of Melbourne maintain the same high standard and quality level of service to activate the City of Melbourne. This encompasses marketing of City of Melbourne, events and activation of spaces.
The People’s Panel 2014 recommends the City of Melbourne review the property asset portfolio and sell non?core assets. The aim is to reduce the size of the property portfolio and release capital.
Queen Victoria Market Redevelopment
The People’s Panel 2014 recommends funding should be considered in covering the cost of the QVM development subject to a realistic feasibility on the rate of return and improved end value in terms of social, economic and environmental outcomes.
The People’s Panel 2014 recommends that debt finance may be used to finance growth infrastructure, special projects and major asset renewal where prompt action can prevent rapidly escalating costs. However, the overall debt levels should be constrained so as to maintain an AA credit rating or better.
Bike Lanes and Footpaths
The People’s Panel 2014 recommends that more bicycle lanes with physical barriers should be installed in the City of Melbourne by reducing car lanes, removing on?street car parking bays, and introducing some one?way streets within the next 5 years. Elizabeth Street, St Kilda Road, Southbank Riverbank, and Grattan Street should be given priority.
The People’s Panel 2014 recommends that the City of Melbourne advocate for improving public transport and infrastructure; increasing the number of mainstream public primary and secondary schools; increasing parking rates and taxes to reduce car usage and congestion in the CBD; increase the minimum standard requirements for new public open space for high growth areas
to 10 per cent of land value; lobby State Government within the next 12 months for greater control of developments and developer contributions; advocate to have control all building planning and permission processes transferred to the City of Melbourne especially in relation to the policy of developments above 25,000 square metres; increasing services to the elderly, indigenous, vulnerable, homeless, disabled and to the youth support services.
The People’s Panel 2014 recommends the City of Melbourne maintain the provision of all its community services to at least current service levels over the next 10 years.
The People’s Panel 2014 recommends the City of Melbourne should continue to implement the LEAN program for operational efficiencies. This should have a target reduction in expenditure equal to an annually compounding of at least one per cent efficiency dividend 2015–2024 (inclusive) based on the previous year’s performance.
The People’s Panel 2014 recommends the City of Melbourne reduces expenditure on new capital works by 10 per cent over the 10-year budget period.