Monday, November 29, 2010

Results from Wednesday's forum on overcoming division

Last Wednesday's Forum on overcoming division in New England (Wednesday Forum: Overcoming division) attracted some interesting comments.

My old consulting colleague Neil Davidson likened the way that towns or areas had fought for things against each other to the mutual disadvantage of all to the old cold war MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) concept. He suggested:     

Instead of 'divide and conquer', what if we actually considered what a working regional system under a peak oil, peak water, climate instability, global financial collapse style but collective regional resilience model might look like? What if people actually got together to discuss what each could bring, not what each would get? What if people deliberately set out to develop collaborative and collective mutual advantage, rather than independent MAD-style 'advantage'?

It strikes me that if there are individuals that are interested (but perhaps can't admit it openly, for fear of showing their less-than-combative colours to their 'comrades'!) perhaps there is an opportunity to look at how to develop the capability and maturity to collaborate and innovate in the face of some pretty mutually assuredly destructive and compounding future threats. Sooner or later it is those within our regions that we will be turning to - not those potential investors to whom we competitively bid for contributions from outside our regional systems.

The vagaries of the existing process should forewarn us that when we need them most it is unlikely that we will receive any assistance from them - my bet would be on building local collaborative and interdependent trust, capacity, capability and maturity.

As consultants, Neil and I have worked together on a variety of regional development issues. However, there are some issues in what Neil says that can be illustrated from other comments.

The idea of regional sustainability is something of a common theme in regional discussions. It features in the Northern Inland Regional Development Plan as an example.

My first problem lies in the way we seem to be going in the opposite direction. Here I want to quote part of what Lynne said:

Having just done the Armidale - Bellingen drive, there is surely need for cooperation.
Bus only 3 times a week at $50 each way and rather hectic as well as odd times. Coming back in son's car we faced the shambles of Dorrigo Mountain.

Old issue I know and it seems in even further decline to me. Even to the matter of public toilets on the way. esp now that Ebor Servo had their doors locked. The three councils involved in this distance plus RTA can surely find some common points.

I can see quite a lot of the problems but, as usual, not the remedies.

Another recent issue for us was an emergency dental situation for one of the little children who was injured at an Armidale School and had to go to Tamworth for treatment. No dentist available at Armidale that day or for follow-ups. Public transport was not available either.

To achieve immediate economies in service delivery in areas such as health, we are reducing services in certain locations, centralising in others. All this depends for its success upon the motor vehicle.

As Lynne indicates, we already have a problem with public transport that can make access difficult for those without cars. But what happens when, as Neil suggests, peak oil hits us and private transport costs rise sharply? Are we, in fact, deliberately creating non-sustainable systems? Is the only solution then re-location of people?

Clearly, improved public transport is important, a broader issue. However, we also need to look again at the structure of services.

I have argued previously that one problem with current approaches to service delivery is that it saves costs on one side by shifting costs into consumers. The first is measurable, the second less so. The money saved in the delivery of a specialist service can be calculated, the extra time and travel costs imposed on patients is ignored.

Lynne also raises a smaller point, the need for agencies, councils, to cooperate. The three councils Lynne refers to are Guyra, Armidale-Dumaresq, Bellingen. Why must one council pay the costs if benefits are shared?

In a different comment, Mark wrote:

On a bureaucratic government level, there are government departments that are broken up into regions that include the "Northern/New England/Norhern Tablelands-coast" such as NSW Police and Hunter-New England Health. These bureaucracies have many workers who see Macquarie St as an enemy. Also, these workers, represented by unions, may start a campaign against Macquarie St. Unions are quite hostile towards the current govt.

There is also the common issue of coal seam gas extraction and the wholesale coal exploration on the Liverpool Plains. This is an easy unifying issue.

Transport, health, education and law enforcement are other common issues.

The newly introduced Metropolitan Transport tax grab on every NSW resident who owns a car is directly subsidising Sydney projects. An easy unifying issue.

Yes, divide and rule can be exploited with the examples above however, if we were to petition each LGA and each state member with similar demands irrespective of their political allegiances, this would at the very least show that the region, as a whole is united in their stand for a better deal collectively.

Mark is obviously putting together different things, but his comments do illustrate a number of issues 

I know from my own experience that many regionally based public servants do get very frustrated at the way they perceive head office as ignoring their regional needs.

Part of the problem lies in the way that any any integrated, centralised system has to make judgements about priorities across the larger whole. Inevitably, this means ignoring or over-riding local or regional interests. Part of the problem lies in the concentration of resources in head office. Part of the problem lies in the absence of any effective mechanisms for integrating across administrative divisions.

If you map all the agency boundaries onto a single map, New England emerges as an entity simply because New England or Northern NSW is a geographic entity. But with differing boundaries for each agency, with no recognition of the broader entity, with an absence of integration, the broader identity is lost.

One of the reasons that I argue that we need a broader New England or Northern focus is simply to force fragmented agencies to respond.

My support for New England self-government will be clear to anyone who reads this blog. Equally, it won't be surprising that my focus attracts others who support the same cause. However, this is a longer term objective. We are stuck with what we have for the moment, we have to try to do what we can to force existing systems to respond.

In another comment, Rob Cannon wrote:

The most common way to unite the people of this region is MONEY. Show them what is gathered by both levels of Govt. and how and where it is (not) being spent and they will gather around to change things. To see the grabs for money by the state govt. so that they can fix up the mess in Sydney is harming this area a lot.

Rob is right. Similar arguments have been advanced by Ian Mott, among others. The growth of new state support in the Hunter is directly related to the way that the area's mining royalties support Sydney. Yet there is also a problem.

Because so many of the head office jobs are in Sydney, because New England now has so many poor areas (fourteen of the poorest localities in Australia are now located in New England), the raw data will show that at least some areas of New England are being subsidised by tax payers elsewhere.

This is comparative static analysis. It ignores, among other things, the dynamic effects that can come from shifting jobs. Yet the reality is that the stats will be quoted and used against us. Again, this illustrates the need for us to develop a common position, to force others to respond.

I think that last Wednesday's forum generated some useful results. I will pick up some of the issues raised in later forums.

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