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MAV Opinion Editorial - Planning the Development of Regional Victoria

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One of the notable changes to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the number of Victorians seeking a different lifestyle.

You may have seen media and housing market reports using the terms “sea changer” and “tree changer” to describe those Victorians seeking to relocate from the city and the suburbs to a coastal or rural lifestyle.

What might once have only been a dream to live in one of smaller communities across Victoria, especially for those under 50 years, is now a possibility with work from home arrangements being increasingly more accepted.

This is great news for the social and economic recovery of smaller communities in the wake of the pandemic, but it will also mean additional pressure on local service and infrastructure delivery over the coming decade.

That’s why there is a need for a broad and integrated approach to infrastructure planning to ensure we meet the needs of today’s and future communities. This was emphasised in the Municipal Association of Victoria’s (MAV) submission to Infrastructure Victoria on its Draft 30-Year Infrastructure Strategy.

This state, especially rural and regional Victoria, needs smart infrastructure investment and planning. It will be vital to ensuring social equity and connectedness and protecting our natural resources.

With just 3% of the nation’s tax base to spend and half the nation’s community assets to care for, local government must continue to be more efficient in what it does as well as maintain its revenues through rating and through partnerships with State and Federal Government, in order to continue delivering for communities.

A good example is the management of our roads. About 87% of Victoria’s road network is maintained by local government, and rural and regional councils are now actively working year-round to ensure safety and respond to congestion and freight needs.

This can involve enabling access to key routes for B-doubles and other heavy vehicles on their local road networks, ensuring that local roads and bridges can sustain an increase in axle loads and that road bases are strengthened and pavements widened to make these routes both safe and functional.

An increased migration to rural and regional Victoria will also mean a significant change to traffic management, parking and street cleaning.

Many rural and regional councils are struggling to address their asset renewal gaps, meaning the gap continues to grow year-on-year.   Unfortunately, we know that there are many facilities either reaching the end of their useful life or experiencing demand beyond design capacity.

We also foresee an increased emphasis in residential areas on local recreational resources for both passive and active activities – another flow on from an increased number of people working at home.

Social and affordable housing investment is also badly needed in regional Victoria.  The State Government’s recent announcement of significant investment in social and affordable housing is welcomed by councils. Appropriate housing is the key limitation to many people moving to regional centres to take up existing job opportunities, let alone those to be created in coming years.

What we need is for the State to engage councils on long-term planning and development and planning reforms that complement, rather than replace, the existing system.

There are significant benefits and efficiencies achieved by greater transparency and genuine community consultation on the State’s transport and infrastructure planning.

As the newly elected president of the Board of the MAV, I am now looking forward to working collaboratively with my fellow Board members to ensure the MAV is a strong, effective, and progressive voice for local government and to ensure councils can continue to support and strengthen their communities.

I am truly humbled to be elected to the role of President of MAV, coming as I do from one of the smallest councils in Victoria. In councils like mine, the issues we share across the entire sector are always sharply in focus as they can often limit Council undertaking both its legislated responsibilities and its service role to its communities.

A key part of my role will be to help Victorians understand the many ways in which they depend on Council services every day.

This opinion editorial appeared in the Ballarat Courier, Bendigo Advertiser, Border Mail and the Warrnambool Standard on 12 March 2021.