The role of local government in pandemic recovery in Australia header

This AHURI Brief summarises the activities already undertaken by local governments in responding to the challenges created by COVID-19. It draws on the findings of the COVID-19 Policy Exchange: Local Approaches to Pandemic Recovery, held in late 2020. The Policy Exchange was attended by Local Government representatives from Melbourne City Council, Cairns Regional Council, Georges River Council and Hobart City Council. It was also attended by the Australian Local Government Association, the Municipal Association of Victoria, the National Growth Areas Alliance, the Planning Institute of Australia and Regional Capitals Australia.

Across Australia, local governments acted rapidly to provide services and support to their communities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. New committees and governance structures were rapidly established to address economic and social impacts, with many changes still operating as we learn to adjust to a ‘COVID- normal’ way of life in Australia.

During the initial stages of the crisis, local government implemented and regulated the public health response in local businesses and public spaces in order to contain the spread. Local councils also deployed teams of cleaners to work at keeping streets and public spaces clean. In regional areas, local governments played an essential role in coordinating the distribution of Personal Protective Equipment to frontline services and coordinating the response in their regions. Across Australia local governments also provided direct support to vulnerable community members including older people and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to access health information and social supports. Financial support in the form of small business grants, rate freezes and business rent reductions were also provided to individuals and businesses experiencing financial hardship.

Public space management, activation and engagement programs

During the pandemic, people’s use of public spaces changed dramatically. Melbourne City Council reported a substantial drop in pedestrian traffic to only 10 per cent of usual levels in August 2020, during Melbourne’s second wave. In some localities in the Georges River Council areas, the impact of COVID-19 was felt early because of the high proportion of the population from China, many of whom returned to China early in the pandemic. This has had a long-lasting impact, and in late 2020 there was still 17 per cent less activity in the high street. Cities usually reliant on tourism including Cairns and Hobart also reported being relatively quiet during the early stages of the pandemic.

Participants in the Policy Exchange acknowledged the need to strike a balance between encouraging people to resume normal activities and support business activity, and maintaining physical distancing to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks. In response to this, many local governments took the lead in finding ways to reactivate shopping strips and public spaces and provide community activities in a COVID-safe way. One example of this was a free Frightful Eighties Drive-in Cinema event arranged by the Georges River Council as part of a COVID-19 Safe Community Events Program. For many councils this has involved provisions to facilitate outdoor dining, so that restaurants can increase their seating capacity. In the City of Melbourne, over 600 outdoor dining applications were received and ‘parklets’ utilised parking spaces on the street and other outdoor space to facilitate the reopening of restaurants.

In NSW, the state government provided grants to support temporary activation projects through the Streets as shared spaces program. The success of this program led to the launch of the Your High Street program in late 2020 offering grants of up to $1 million for local governments to deliver improvements to high streets with the aim of promoting economic recovery and social connection in a COVID-safe environment. Grants awarded to-date have funded, for example, the widening of footpaths, cycle-ways, pop-up parks, upgraded civic squares and laneways, art projects, new greenery and spaces for outdoor dining, all of which facilitate physical distancing while encouraging the community participation and activity.

Local governments also focused on supporting local business throughout 2020 through grants, and other programs. For example, the Hobart City Council consulted with their local community about where they most required assistance, and provided Business Adaptation and Assistance Quick Response Grants to support small businesses facing hardship due to the pandemic. These grants could support businesses to adapt their business models, upskill owners and employees, or collaborate with other businesses on new projects. The Georges River Council redeployed library and civic centre staff to directly reach out to local businesses and established a standalone business platform to link local businesses.

Participants in the Policy Exchange acknowledged the need to strike a balance between encouraging people to resume normal activities and support business activity, and maintaining physical distancing to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

Promoting active transport and ‘living locally’

Use of public transport has dropped significantly during the pandemic with many people apprehensive about the risks of being in crowded environments. Enabling people to better use active transport methods, such as walking and cycling was a significant focus for many local councils. In Victoria, the Municipal Association of Victoria and VicHealth partnered to support councils to implement walking and bike riding projects. Melbourne City Council used the lockdown to accelerate the construction of new bike lanes throughout the city as part of its transport strategy. For the 80 per cent of people living in the outer suburbs, active transport to essential jobs in the city or in other locations will not be possible and there will be a need to revise transport strategies.

Throughout the lockdown, with more people staying at home and in their local neighbourhood, the need for local centres or shopping strips to offer a range of goods and services close to where people live, became critical.  Many of the initiatives introduced affirm the ’20 minute city’ model– a common place-based urban policy approach. Walkable neighbourhoods reduce the need for public transport use, and for people to travel outside of their locality frequently –particularly important during the pandemic.

Participants in the Policy Exchange discussed the importance or reinvigorating local shopping strips and small businesses to encourage local consumption, with less people routinely travelling to central business districts. Some council have encouraged thriving local economies though through grants to small business, making affordable spaces available for pop-up shops, creative start-ups and arts and cultural activities. The Georges River Council ran a promotional Shop Local competition with weekly prizes for residents shopping locally in the lead up to Christmas to support the recovery of local businesses.

It was acknowledged however that this emphasis on living locally presents specific challenges in greenfield, and outer-suburban growth areas where the social infrastructure to support this is not in place. Working remotely has left many people preferring a ‘blended’ return to work with some days in the office and some at home. This saves on commuting time, and has been shown to have very positive impacts on household and financial wellbeing in growth areas. There is a greater need than ever for local governments to plan local centres with access to jobs and shared working spaces, as the nature of work changes.

Reviving regional areas

Before COVID-19, many of Australia’s regional areas were already facing the challenges of rebuilding following the bushfires of January 2020.

The COVID-19 restrictions on mobility, reduced air-travel and international tourism have impacted on local economies. Many regional areas are reliant on the ‘visitor economy’, with 43 cents of every tourism dollar spent in regional destinations. Re-invigorating growth in regional areas, especially with reduced air-travel, presents a challenge for many local government areas.  For the foreseeable future, the tourism industries will rely on attracting domestic tourists, with more remote locations likely to be particularly hard hit because they rely on air travel for people to reach them.

Local industries were also affected by restrictions on the aviation industry, because many rely on air freight. The pandemic has highlighted connectivity as a key issue in regional areas.  During the pandemic there was a 26% increase in online activity during business hours in Australia; people have rapidly adapted to working, studying and shopping online and many of these changes may become permanent. Digital service provision presents an opportunity to improve access to health and education services for people living in regional areas. However, the ‘digital divide’ for people in where internet services and mobile phone services are less accessible and reliable is a concern for regional councils. Providing access to digital resources, and skills development could prove a valuable investment to enable more people to participate in the digital economy.

However, the ‘digital divide’ for people in where internet services and mobile phone services are less accessible and reliable is a concern for regional councils.

What is next?

Reflecting on what has been learnt through the COVID-19 crisis, local governments report an increased connection to local businesses with whom they interacted directly to provide support. They also reported positive changes to their operations, moving to digital service provision and increased provision for working from home.

Local Government leadership will be crucial in Australia’s economic and social recovery. They will need to take the lead on adapting local infrastructure and services to COVID-normal conditions and providing stimulus to local economies. For many councils, this will likely need to be achieved in the context of severe constraints on organisational resources.

Local infrastructure projects, and the coordination of larger-scale projects with other local governments or state or federal governments, will present important opportunities for economic stimulus. The Federal Budget for 2021 has provided $1 billion in new funding towards Local Roads and Community Infrastructure and $250 million in new funding for the Building Better Regions Fund, providing the opportunity for local governments to access funds to support a locally led recovery. This is alongside several other initiatives in water, disaster recovery and waste management, that will support the activities of local government.

Emerging from the pandemic, local government representatives were future-focussed. They emphasised improving liveability, sustainability and resilience and promoting social and economic participation. This requires local projects to address long term challenges with climate change, renewable energy sources, digital transformation, social housing provision, and innovative transport options high on the agenda.

The OECD notes that an important role will be played by subnational governments in economic recovery, while noting that the future demographic profile and revenue projections for territorial governments will alter due to the effects of COVID-19. In Australia, reduced migration and international travel will have significant impacts on economic growth. This will require strategic plans and economic development priorities to be revised, with significant ramifications for service delivery. Initiatives may span the provision of community services, economic development projects and new local infrastructure to stimulate jobs and productivity and providing support to local businesses, as well as participatory projects to reinvigorate public spaces.