By Colin MacGillivray
WHILE the City of Whittlesea will not join municipalities across Victoria hosting council elections this month, its panel of administrators has set down its vision for the next four years.
Administrators Lydia Wilson, Peita Duncan and Bruce Billson last week released a report detailing their actions in the six months since the State Government’s dismissal of Whittlesea councillors in March. The report also set out administrators’ priorities for the city during the next four years.
Among their key focus is the expansion of infrastructure and service delivery in northern growth areas and implementing good governance and sound financial management, all while dealing with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms Wilson, administrator chair, said while the pandemic had made it hard for administrators to personally interact with the public since their appointment, she hoped their track record during the past six months would kindle trust with the city’s residents.
“We don’t want to be faceless. We want people to be able to relate to us,” she said.
“There are always going to be issues with having administrators as opposed to elected representatives, but we’re there for the right reason.
“We will do everything within our powers to make sure we listen and engage as much as we can. We have already been very active, and we’re hoping to be even more so in public instead of behind screens.”
Mr Billson said council had faced an enormous challenge at the onset of the pandemic but had responded admirably.
“It’s certainly been tumultuous. It’s been a lot of internal adjustment, with staff moving into different areas, new modes of program and service delivery, and new activities,” he said.
“We’ve allocated over $1 million for direct financial assistance to support the community and another half a million dollars to support the local economic recovery, in addition to policy changes around hardship and fee relief.
“We’re proactively identifying how we can be most helpful during a difficult time to support people through the impact, but also to lay the foundation and fuel recovery on the other side, whenever that may be.
“That’s extended into maintaining a very substantial capital works program as a local economic stimulus. We had a good budget outcome from last year, and we’re putting some of that money into local community projects.”
Ms Wilson said another major achievement of the panel’s first six months was the appointment of new chief executive Craig Lloyd, a former Murrindindi Shire Council chief executive, who officially started yesterday.
“We know we’ve made a really good choice. He has got a multiplicity of skills with his background experience, not just in local government but in emergency management,” Ms Wilson said.
“Something that’s key – and you can see it through his work at Murrundindi – is all of the community engagement, which is so critical for us in Whittlesea.”
Ms Wilson said the panel had a vision for the future of Whittlesea across a host of areas, including economic and employment opportunities, advocacy, environmental management, energy, affordable housing and climate change initiatives.
She said providing services that addressed issues such as family violence, mental health and Aboriginal reconciliation was critical for the future of the city.
“There is not one adolescent mental health bed in the City of Whittlesea. Not one,” Mr Billson said.
“Through the COVID lens, we’ve found these pressure points where, whilst we’re busy making sure the physical infrastructure keeps pace with the growth of our city, it’s clear that some services have lagged.”
In addition to services, Mr Billson said it was important for jobs and community infrastructure to continue to grow in the northern parts of Whittlesea.
“There are obvious priorities around key arterial transport infrastructure. Some of the country roads are now carrying very large volumes of traffic as you head further north,” he said.
“We want to make sure the community infrastructure is landed and available in advance of people settling. We’re trying to avoid the lag of having 10,000 people moving into Donnybrook and there’s not a community centre.
“Sporting and leisure infrastructure can be the core of many communities, and we’ve got some very substantial investments in Mernda and other locations to support growth.
“The other question is what we can do to support wise and forward-thinking private-sector investment. There is quite a lot of private sector initiative percolating around Whittlesea, whether it is the intermodal freight terminal or whether it’s the food innovation hub.
“Livelihoods matter. At the moment two thirds of our residents in the workforce are exported out of our city to go elsewhere to find a livelihood.
“COVID has reminded us that livelihoods are crucial, and that economic and employment opportunities at a local level are really significant.
“We can’t make businesses succeed or force people to invest in our city, but we can get rid of the headwinds and showcase why investing and growing and starting a business in Whittlesea makes a lot of sense.”
Ms Wilson said administrators had voluntarily chosen to produce the six-month report to keep themselves accountable to Whittlesea residents, and would continue to do so throughout the remainder of their term.
“We’re a really cohesive, ambitious, aspirational group of administrators,” she said.
“We have taken this role on very seriously, and we want to deliver on behalf of the citizens of Whittlesea during the next four years.”
The administrators said they looked forward to a time when they could be more physically present in the community, as COVID-19 case numbers in Victoria continue to fall.
“That human side is what we’ve really missed through COVID,” Ms Wilson said.
“We miss the opportunity to talk to council staff, to be able to go down to the depot and visit local agencies, to look at our strip shopping centres and so forth.”
Mr Billson said he was keen to be ‘out and about in the city’.
“You yearn for that connectedness with neighbourhoods and citizens to understand the rhythms and aspirations of people, and get a sense of the physical environment where we’re making decisions,” he said.
“We’ve dived deep into statistical analysis and those sorts of indicators, but there’s nothing quite like getting amongst it and feeling and sensing and engaging in what’s happening.”