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Building bridges: Council and community partnerships

Di Moore and Ian Gibson

Shire of Yarra Ranges


The Shire of Yarra Ranges has decided that our future rests with the pursuit of sustainability.

This paper presents the following case:

• Our Yarra Ranges community has strong views about its future, developed through our community’s plan — ‘Vision 2020’.

• Council has encapsulated the vision within a framework of ‘sustainability’, and is providing a leadership role in and to the community. This involves pursuing sustainability within our own governance and organisation, and includes building sustainability into our language, corporate planning and community reporting. The rhetoric has been supported with structural change, including the establishment of a Sustainability Group, and inclusion of sustainability principles throughout the organisation.

• Changing only the images and structures produce limited results. The key to success in achieving sustainable solutions is one of behavioural and cultural change; Yarra Ranges is working towards this goal.

• Council’s leadership role includes support for the wider community, including our residents, businesses, community groups and other agencies, as they also explore and implement sustainability.

• Sustainability requires, amongst other things, local responses to global issues. This means local communities must be able to articulate a future for themselves, and have confidence in processes of governance. New modes of governance are therefore being introduced to promote sustainability at the local level. Following local government reforms of the 1990s, there has been concern within various local communities that their interests have been lost or overlooked. The development of partnerships between the Shire and communities in local townships is producing significant benefits, but also providing challenges relating to representation, communication and consultation.

• Many of the tools used to promote sustainability — such as integrated local area planning, good environmental management, local economic initiatives, community development and place management — are not new. However, sustainability is providing the focus of our future direction.

• The pursuit of sustainability is consistent with principles of Best Value — listening and responding to stakeholders, and allocating Council resources in a way which is efficient and effective.

The Yarra Ranges community

The Shire of Yarra Ranges is located on metropolitan Melbourne’s eastern fringe, with a population of about 140,000 people. With an area of almost 2,500 square kilometres, the Shire is the largest of any metropolitan or ‘interface’ Council in Victoria. It is the sixth largest municipality in the metropolitan area and the seventh largest in the State in terms of population. The Shire, which forms part of the Wurundjeri-balluk territory, has a significant and active Aboriginal population.

While considered as an ‘urban’ council for funding purposes, the Shire has a mix of urban and rural communities. Approximately 80% of the Shire’s population live in the 10% of the Shire that is classed as urban. The remaining population is unevenly dispersed throughout the rural area within 40 to 50 townships, small communities and rural areas, such as Healesville, Yarra Glen and the towns in the Dandenong Ranges and along the Warburton Highway. Each of the townships has their own strong local identity.

The population of the Shire is expected to remain constant or decline slightly over the foreseeable future, with a projected decline of about 0.1% per annum over the next 20 years. The Shire of Yarra Ranges can be characterised as a ‘young’ Shire, with a higher than average proportion of our population aged between 0–17 years. However, the Shire’s population as a whole is ageing, creating demand for a different mix of housing, services and facilities than that which currently exists.

The Shire has a strong intensive agriculture sector, based on horticulture, viticulture and floriculture, and a rapidly-growing tourism industry. It also includes most of Melbourne’s water catchment areas.

Our natural environment

The Shire of Yarra Ranges contains some of the most environmentally important areas in the State — a significant factor in attracting residents and tourists. The mountainous landscapes and the Yarra River valley contain significant areas of remnant native vegetation, much of which is botanically and zoologically significant and forms an important habitat for wildlife. The preservation of the natural environment forms the underlying context of all Council activities.

In 1982, a Regional Strategy Plan was adopted for the area. It continues to form a key part of planning policies which recognise the significance of the environment, and have pursue strategies that balance the economic growth of the Shire with protection of the Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges from over-development.

The Shire has a tradition of environmental protection, with many active environmental and community groups.

Sustainability and the Shire’s vision

Vision 2020

In 1999 and 2000, the Shire carried out a community visioning exercise which culminated in Vision 2020. Part of the message clearly described by the community was a demand for their local government to more actively pursue principles of sustainability.

Vision 2020 became the driving document for the Shire’s operations. The Shire adopted sustainability as its guiding principle, generating profound changes. Our corporate planning immediately shifted towards a focus on sustainable community outcomes. Over time, we are increasingly introducing sustainability as the key driver of processes such as capital works evaluation, strategic land use planning, urban design, community development and community reporting.

Our version of sustainability

We have heard many of the debates about definitions of ‘sustainability’, ‘sustainable development’ and ‘ecologically sustainable development’. We are aware of the importance of the principles and the badging of Local Agenda 21. We have addressed the strengths and weaknesses of models such as The Natural Step, Natural Capitalism, and Redesigning Resources. We have reviewed and embraced tools such as Triple Bottom Line reporting.

We have decided to use a simple philosophy. The principles underlying our view of sustainability are:

• long-term thinking and acting; AND

• integration between environmental, economic and social factors; AND

• building capacity in our social and natural systems; AND

• local responses to global issues.

We believe in the processes of LA21, TBL reporting and The Natural Step, but have decided not to get bogged down on the terminology. We believe in sustainability because that is what the Yarra Ranges community wants, and we are moving ahead in implementing change to move towards sustainability.

Structural change in the organisation

Formation of the Shire’s Sustainability Group

As a result of the adoption of Vision 2020, the Shire of Yarra Ranges organisation was changed to reflect the centrality of sustainability. In mid-2000, a new Sustainability Group was established to strengthen the focus on environmental enhancement, economic and community development.

We initially established an Environment Department, covering policy, planning referrals, an arborist, environmental education, an officer supporting the Shire’s 80 environmental and groups, and compliance. The team of eight covers many of the functions covered by Environment departments in other councils, but with a particular focus on biodiversity, environmental education and community groups.

The existing Economic Development Unit was included within the new Sustainability Group. In addition, the Group included one Social Planner, two Strategic Land Use Planners, Heritage, Urban Design and Township Coordination (which were subsequently incorporated into a ‘Sustainable Futures’ team).

The Group delivers a number of traditional municipal services like policy, project facilitation, design and environmental compliance. It also provides a number of services with a strong ‘Yarra Ranges’ flavour, such as our environmental education programs, work with environmental and trader groups, and township coordination.

Equally important is the role of the Sustainability Group in working with other areas of Council’s service provision in pursuing sustainable outcomes. Examples include:

• support for a cross-organisational ‘Eco Leaders’ group, comprising a range of passionate staff members driving efficiency in resource use within Council operations

• regular joint work between the Environment Department and Asset Management Department on issues such as vegetation control

• a strong relationship between our Planning Services Department and the Environment Department in strengthening indigenous plantings in all landscape plans being considered for Planning Permit applications

• coordination of the Shire’s Cities for Climate Protection process, managed by the Environment Department and including, for example, those responsible for fleet management, building design and maintenance, and street lighting.

• strong focus on integrated approaches to policy development through the operation of a cross-organisational Policy Development Network.

The formation of the Sustainability Group is one step in a much wider organisational reform aimed at the pursuit of sustainability.

Organisational reforms in local government — the context

A common solution to a challenge in local government — like other complex organisations — is to restructure.

In the past, structures in local government have typically embraced hierarchical forms, and focused on traditional functional groupings or ‘guilds’ like engineering, health and town planning. Corporate reforms in the 1980s and 1990s led to a rebadging of the guilds, typically including versions of Corporate Services, Technical Services, Environmental Services and Community Services. The emergence of competition policy and its manifestations such as Compulsory Competitive Tendering resulted in a further split between ‘client’ and ‘provider’ sides of organisations. Innumerable examples of local government restructure in Australia have generally produced tinkering with versions of the new guilds.

Is there anything wrong with these structures? We believe that they lead to reinforcement of ‘silo mentality’, limiting of agendas and therefore of solutions to complex issues, communication breakdowns, and reactive responses to emerging community challenges. In addition, there is a loss of opportunity to reflect local needs within the organisational structure. If structure is to follow function, then it seems likely that the enormous variation in the aspirations of local communities throughout Australia would generate many variations in municipal organisational structures.

Recent innovations in structural reforms in Australian local government have been instructive. Examples include:

• Hornsby City Council’s strengthened Environment Department, including a range of areas which have significant contributions to environmental enhancement

• Fairfield City Council’s City Outcomes Department, established in 1998 and focusing on community involvement, priority setting, service level specification, project management, place management, devising systems to provide value for money for ratepayers, and partnerships

• several municipalities, such as Fairfield, Dandenong and Maribyrnong City Councils, are experimenting with models of Place Management

• since the Shire of Yarra Ranges model was introduced, ‘Sustainability’ has been incorporated into organisational structures in Surf Coast and Mornington Peninsula Shire Councils. Surf Coast has adopted a model similar to that of Yarra Ranges, while Mornington Peninsula has included a ‘sustainability’ focus into all its structures.

Inappropriate, outdated or unresponsive organisational structures can provide barriers to the achievement of quality outcomes. However, structural reform provides no guarantee of success, and can be counter-productive if not associated with clarity of objectives, clear establishment of priorities, adequate resourcing, process changes and, above all, cultural changes. These take considerable effort and time.

The focus on sustainability: is it working?

The Shire’s focus on sustainability is still relatively new. It is too early to make definitive judgements about the effectiveness of the reforms. However, some conclusions are evident.

• The adoption of the language and pursuit of the principles of sustainability has strong community support, and has generated wide interest outside the Shire. In particular, the strengthening of the organisation’s environmental performance has received strong support in community surveys. The pursuit of sustainability is widely seen as evidence that Vision 2020 is being taken seriously.

• Sustainability provides a justification for significant enhancement in our strategic planning capacity. This will generate long-term gains, but is resource-intensive.

• Organisational cultural change is being achieved through increasing the permeability of the organisation’s boundaries, building a learning organisation and learning communities, and developing new forms of democratic governance in our townships. Like all efforts at cultural change, this will take some years.

• Like most organisational changes, the establishment of the Sustainability Group has not been welcomed universally by staff in other parts of the organisation. There are perceptions amongst staff that the Sustainability Group has syphoned resources which could be used for more immediate (and much needed) service provision, and that the Group has more than its share of high-profile, interesting projects.

• A further danger is the view that the Sustainability Group is the only group responsible for pursuing sustainability within the organisation. This partly relates to the naming of the group, and partly to the tasks allocated to it.

• A measure of the success of our organisation in pursuing sustainability is its capacity to link effectively with other levels of government, and with other municipalities. There remains scope for expanding these partnerships.

To sum up: the structural change within the organisation has been a significant step in supporting a shift towards sustainability. However, it will take some years to effectively embed sustainability into the organisational culture.

Sustainability and best value

Local government in Victoria operates within a State Government framework of Best Value, which replaced the former Government’s model of Compulsory Competitive Tendering. Best Value requires detailed reviews of each functional area of Council operations, covering stakeholder analyses, service reviews, business planning and wide consultation. The Shire of Yarra Ranges Sustainability Group is one of three Council services currently undertaking a Best Value Review.

We consider that the techniques of Best Value are consistent with the pursuit of sustainability.

Partnerships with local communities

The need for new models of governance

Vision 2020 thus provided a future direction for the Shire through the adoption of sustainability as a guiding principle. This included identification of several shortcomings within Council’s relatively traditional operations, one of which was a need to provide much stronger support for communities within local townships.

The Shire had been formed following the amalgamation of the Shires of Lillydale, Sherbrooke, Upper Yarra and Healesville in 1994. Centralisation of the new Council office to Lilydale (former headquarters had been in Lilydale, Upwey, Yarra Junction and Healesville), combined with the unpopularity of the decision to sack the former councillors and appoint Commissioners, had created tension amongst many local communities.

Each of the over 40 townships in the Shire has strong local identity. The reforms of the mid-1990s had generated a lack of local ownership and commitment to council decision making in the new council’s operations. The lack of confidence was exacerbated by the traditional ‘guild’ model of the Council’s organisational structure. The silos had created an information system based on the needs of departments rather than local communities, and were reactive to township needs, rather than proactive in supporting the communities to help themselves.

The Shire of Yarra Ranges ‘Township Model’

Consequently, the Shire of Yarra Ranges has begun the process of restructuring our operations to provide much stronger emphasis on local townships within the Shire. This ‘Township Model’ includes:

• Shire support for the development of representative groups within each township. In some cases, this has involved working with existing umbrella groups in townships (such as Mt Evelyn and Healesville); and broadening the base of community or trader groups in others (such as Yarra Glen and Belgrave). In some townships (such as Warburton and Coldstream), major community development efforts have been put into the establishment of new representative groups.

• The Shire has begun to use these representative groups for advice on preparation of multi-disciplinary township plans, capital works, service provision and significant planning permit applications. This process is embryonic — an example is the development of Council’s capital works budget, which now includes a formal step of obtaining advice from the representative groups on priorities and implementation in each township before final adoption by Council.

• Within the Shire organisation, individual ‘facilitators’ are being appointed to act as conduits for information between townships and the Shire. These include staff from all Departments, aiming to link the whole organisation into township issues. In some cases, the facilitators live in ‘their’ township.

• Council’s information systems are being reviewed to refocus on townships (rather than council departments).

• An Executive Officer — Townships has been appointed to coordinate the process, and an Urban Designer appointed to coordinate a rolling program of Urban Design Frameworks within Township Plans for each township.

• The process is being coordinated through a Township Coordination Committee, which includes four Councillors, the Chief Executive Officer, all Directors and key staff.

Other changes have involved building stronger partnerships with environmental and community groups, including formalising their status as groups providing specialist advice to Council. The recent conference conducted by the Shire and Swinburne University — Sustainability: New Name, New Game! — has re-invigorated links between the business community, local community and environmental groups, government agencies, the University and Council. The Shire has also continued to review its partnerships with other levels of government, its suppliers and contractors, all aimed at pursuing sustainable outcomes.

The Township Model: is it working?

The implementation of the Shire’s Township Model is only beginning. The development of working partnerships between local communities and the Shire is a long-term process of building mutual trust. In Yarra Ranges with over 40 townships, this process will take several years of changing attitudes, structures and systems.

The beginning is highly promising. Several townships such as Mount Evelyn, Warburton, Coldstream and Belgrave are now working much more effectively with the establishment of their own versions of Township Groups, and have commenced the process of articulating their own visions and actively seeking solutions. Internally, the preparation of Township Plans are providing a focus for integrating the Shire’s planning efforts, and gathering basic information on plans, activities and services in each township. The appointment of a Township Coordinator and an Urban Designer has supported a more professional approach.

We have discovered that the task is much greater than we originally envisaged. The community development work involved with establishing and supporting representative groups is considerable, and so progress throughout our townships has been slower than anticipated. Adding a volunteer ‘facilitator’ role to already stretched staff throughout the organisation has proven difficult, but this does not appear to be insurmountable. Our information systems remain ‘department’ rather than ‘township’ based, but we are beginning to make headway.


We conclude:

• Sustainability is working as a framework and driver for change in our Shire. Other councils may learn from our experience, just as we can learn from them.

• There is no single template for applying principles of sustainability in the Shire, so we do not expect that our model will automatically transfer to other areas.

• For the Shire of Yarra Ranges, adoption of sustainability as our guiding principle has been a necessary first step, but much more is needed. We have to continue to review priorities, shift resources, and work on process and cultural change.

• Our main advice is to commence with clear articulation of your community’s vision. Our Vision 2020 has provided the bridge between community and Council, and become a driver of change.

The journey to a sustainable culture is long and difficult — the Shire has begun the process, but is under no illusion about the extent of the challenge which it has accepted.

About the author

Councillor Di Moore, is Mayor of the Shire of Yarra Ranges. She has been a Councillor for more than 10 years. Di is known for her work and commitment in the best interest of people and municipality. She respects independence of each unique area of the Shire and is not phased by change. Di facilitates good community consultation, encourages strong community partnerships, and works towards sustainable growth environmentally, economically, financially and socially.

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