Recreation reserves are what we want

In my latest media release, I have called for more development of Bendigo’s neighbourhood recreation reserves, especially as Covid-19 restrictions limit exercise options. Council does a lot in this space, but more can be done – for example, the Ironbark Gully Trail should be expedited.

I’ve been holding a small online community survey in the last 4 weeks, and the results are clear. The top priority in people’s neighbourhoods is recreation reserves. Over 80% of people said that recreation reserves were a priority for their neighbourhood. I think this is an excellent opportunity for council to work with local residents on ways to improve their local reserves, because locals often have excellent ideas that council could adopt.

Have a look at the results on the survey here, and take the survey here.

One recent example of a good rec reserve project is at the Long Gully Recreation Reserve. Council workers did a great job consulting with local residents on what would work to improve exercise and fitness. The result was a footpath and exercise station around the oval – the uptick in usage is huge.

New footpath at Long Gully Rec Reserve

Recreation reserves will be used more and more over the time that Covid-19 is with us. In the last stage 3 lockdown in Bendigo, recreation reserves were used more often. This increases wear and tear, but also increases a positive sense of ownership amongst residents. Hence, councils can spend more money making these places more user-friendly and beautiful, safe in the knowledge that this is what residents want. They are an example of “palaces for the people” – free and low-cost places that everyone can gather in.

However, there are reserves where council could pick up the pace. One example is the Ironbark Gully Trail (pictured above on a National Tree Day event). A concept plan is already developed and council has even put the money aside, but not much is happening. I asked Marie Bonne, Chair of the Ironbark Gully Friends, about this. This was her view:

“A new trail along Ironbark Gully would provide much needed recreational space for families, especially as more people get out into their neighbourhood for exercise due to Covid-19 restrictions. We have the plan, and the council has allocated funding. This important project is long overdue.” Let’s get onto it, council.

(Photo credits: 1. Ironbark Gully Friends; 2. Dave Fagg)

No Deferral of Council Elections!

Dave Fagg has criticised the proposal by the Municipal Association of Victoria to defer the Victorian local government elections.

If you’re a local politics watcher, then you would not have missed this piece of news. However, for the average punter, this would probably have passed you by. The MAV has (again) called on the Victorian Government to follow NSW’s lead in deferring local government elections for 12 months. The MAV is the Municipal Association of Victoria, one of the peak bodies for local government in Victoria. I disagree with this move, and local residents do as well.

Why does the MAV think we should defer the elections until October 2020? From their press release, it seems there are 3 reasons:

  1. Covid-19 restrictions are making it difficult for candidates to consult with their communities, and generally campaigning is more difficult.
  2. Potential candidates, especially “women and people of diverse background”, may find it challenging to make the time to campaign because of the pandemic and associated restrictions.
  3. The first 2 reasons mean that holding “free and fair” local government elections is more difficult.

What do I think about these reasons?

On the first point, I certainly agree that Covid-19 restrictions are making it more difficult to run a traditional campaign, especially for candidates in Melbourne and Mitchell Shire. But difficult times call for creative solutions. I’ve been able to hold street stalls under the current restrictions, using social distancing. In addition, some candidates are holding online meetings and local organisations are planning to hold online candidate forums. Many people are using social media to find out about candidates, and residents who don’t use social media are still able to call or email candidates to raise issues of concern. I also think that local media, like radio and newspapers, need to up their game when it comes to covering the campaign – they can play a powerful role in disseminating information about candidates.

On the second point, it’s hard to know whether people (especially the groups they mention) are not putting their hand up. What’s the evidence of this phenomenon? It’s certainly not the case in my ward of Whipstick in Greater Bendigo, where a female incumbent councillor is planning to run, and two other women have already put their names forward. I’d like to know where the MAV is getting their evidence on this.

The third point is hyperbole by the MAV. Deferring local government elections is a backward step. Local democracy can’t stop because of the pandemic.

The MAV’s proposal assumes that things will be fine in 12 months time. I have very little confidence that this will be the case. It is quite possible that in 12 months time, we will be living under similar restrictions. What then? Will the MAV simply keep pushing for another deferral until things are ‘normal’ again? That is not a sustainable position. We need to push ahead with local elections despite the challenges that Covid-19 brings.

Supporting Business in Bendigo

What support could Bendigo Council give to the business sector during the Covid-19 crisis?

Across the country, businesses are struggling, especially small and medium-sized businesses. One way of measuring this is by looking at Jobkeeper data (latest data for postcodes). The latest figures show that for City of Greater Bendigo postcodes, there are at least 2000 businesses that have claimed Jobkeeper payments.

Of course, the main source of economic stimulus needs to be from state and federal governments, but local councils can play their part. The council has put out some measures to support local businesses, including business support webinars, and mentoring, but I would advocate for these additional support measures.

I think there are several ways in which the council could improve its supporting for businesses, especially at this time. Thanks are due to the business owners who spoke to me about their businesses, especially Michele Andrea from Eaglehawk eatery Let’s Get Saucy.

  1. Refund small fees such as outdoor dining and A-Frames for the 2019-2020 financial year. The council is waiving these fees for 2020-2021 but a refund would be much more useful for fees already paid.
  2. A partial waiver on 2020-2021 rates for businesses who have accessed Jobkeeper. The council is offering rates deferrals and payment plans, but a partial waiver would give much needed cashflow
  3. Better communication of business support. Council’s website is impersonal and hard to navigate. Its business support page is filled with lists of information-related websites, and support measures from council are nowhere to be found. A new, stand alone Covid-19 website needs to be developed that is intuitive to use.
  4. The council often puts out tenders for businesses, and has a procurement policy to guide how it selects winning businesses who apply for these tenders. Currently, local businesses receive a 15% ‘weighting’ when the council is selecting tender winners. This percentage needs to be urgently increased.

Fair Council Spending Across Greater Bendigo

Does Bendigo council spend fairly across our whole municipality?

From the draft 2020/2021 council budget, it is clear that most spending is concentrated in the centre of the city. Areas like Long Gully and Golden Square are almost completely neglected, and the northern growth corridor through to Huntly needs more community infrastructure. Small towns like Woodvale have been advocating for simple items for over a decade.

Have a look at this online map that Nigel Preston put together, using data from the draft budget for 2020/2021. You can see for yourself how concentrated spending is in the CBD.

I recognise that spending on council assets such as the Bendigo Art Gallery and the Hargreaves Mall is necessary to stimulate business and attract tourists. But let’s remember, most Bendigonians live in the suburbs, not in the CBD. These neighbourhoods need extra spending to make them livable, healthy, and attractive. There needs to be a shift in the balance of spending to reflect this fact.

Bendigo needs to commit to the 10-minute neighbourhood idea, but we cannot do that without seriously investing in 2 types of neighbourhoods:

  1. Growth corridors such as the Epsom/White Hills/Huntly area, which needs a community hub.
  2. Historically neglected areas like Long Gully, which needs a community plan to guide its future development.

Our neighbourhoods are where people actually live. There is a pressing need to invest in social infrastructure so that these places remain healthy and attractive places to live.