As custodians: Are we building and maintaining the community infrastructure needed to meet current and future needs?
Question 6 in the “10 Hardest Questions to answer in Local Government”.
In a word, no, and I was more than happy to leave it there for this week, as this answer is complicated. Alas I have pushed myself to forge on.
Let’s first be clear as to what we are talking about. Community Infrastructure generally consists of the buildings and spaces that provide services and activities. Community halls, swimming pools, roads, parks, water treatment plants, footpaths, aerodromes, waste disposal and all the pipes that go under the ground, these are all examples of community infrastructure. In the North Burnett we currently have $836 000 000 (that’s million) dollars of infrastructure to care for – and that’s without building any more.
So the question is in two parts – current and future needs.
Current needs: Local Governments capacity to fund new infrastructure or maintain existing infrastructure is constrained by its general revenue raising capacity. As I’ve stated many times previously, with only 7000ish ratepayers to support $830M of assets, we are substantially underfunded. We rely on State and Federal funding grants which are competitive and not guaranteed year to year to make up some of the shortfall. Much of our infrastructure is ageing and failing and we are now getting to the crossroads of decision making as to whether we should keep maintaining it, upgrading it, replacing it or removing it because we just can’t continue paying for this huge asset base. The older assets are often not as energy efficient and have higher operating costs than new technology and construction techniques available today. Based on current demand a question I have for you, is do we need all the assets we have? If we could start again, which ones would we keep? Can we change the use of some which will then better support our community today? Which leads me to the next point.
Future needs: Much of our infrastructure was built in a different era, with different social needs. Many councils are now developing integrated approaches which merge activities of previous multiple infrastructure. Some are innovating by combining energy, water and waste and some are building multipurpose community hubs. There is a lot of research and great ideas for greenfield projects but not so much for older regions with many legacy assets and in particular there is limited capacity to retro-fit these structures. I can assure you that if we were to sit down and plan the region out now, we wouldn’t have the majority of infrastructure we own. Given that we have the 5th largest road network in QLD we could surely improve on the efficiency of that system at least! Not to mention the amount of meeting places we have and separated sporting and community facilities. Shared infrastructure is the way of the future. That being said, we have to work with what we’ve got.
What we are working towards is a livable community where community needs are addressed in the most cost effective manner. This conversation has only just begun and will need all of us to work together in earnest on effective solutions.