ABC Victoria Statewide Drive with Jane Nield

JANE NIELD: Ratepayers around the state are being warned service cuts are a distinct possibility as some regional councils face the very true reality that their budgets are in the red and could be for some time. So, is it time for the Federal Government to reassess the level of support it gives local councils, and should funds already pledged for critical infrastructure like roads and housing be reassessed as costs continue to rise and skill shortages bite hard? 

My guest this afternoon is the Honourable Catherine King, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. It's good afternoon to you Catherine King. And you've been in Canberra surrounded by representatives from local councils, so a very busy day for you indeed. 

CATHERINE KING: It certainly has been. We call this Local Government Week up in Canberra. I think all - over 500 mayors and CEOs of local councils from every single corner of the country head up to Canberra for their General Assembly. And then also on Friday, we have a government - Australian Council of Local Governments where ministers make themselves available to all of your local councils to talk about issues that are important. And I've had lots and lots of meetings today from councils from far-flung places and places a bit closer to home. 

JANE NEILD: So what are some of the biggest concerns, Catherine King, that you're hearing from local councils? Because I'm assuming that when they have your ear, and a minister for many portfolios, that they really want to have that opportunity to tell you what they need. 

CATHERINE KING: Yeah. Well, often councils are coming to talk about a very specific local project, whether it's in community infrastructure or a road project that they want funding for, and that's always welcome to hear what the particular areas priorities might be. But obviously, the sustainability of local government funding has been a really significant issue, and it's an issue across the country. It's not a new one, but certainly what we've done is a couple of things. 

The first is, it's about 20 years since the Commonwealth looked at the sustainability of local council funding; a lot has happened since then. We've had some councils amalgamate, we've had councils that are finding the delivery of services increasingly difficult, and of course we've had, you know, road maintenance issues and things like that. So the House of Reps is currently looking at the sustainability of local government funding. 

But what I was at pains to do in the last budget was to really try and look at where can the Commonwealth help. Of course, local government is a creature of state governments, they come under state government Acts and work more closely with their state governments. But at the Commonwealth level, we already provide millions of dollars in financial assistance grants directly that are untied to local councils. 

But what I also did is I took a program called the Roads to Recovery program and made room in the budget to double that. Because I'd heard from my own community and communities across the country that putting more money into local roads was something that people desperately wanted and needed. And so we've done that, taking it from $500 million over - to up to $1 billion, so that's doubling that. So every single council, not just some - we're not picking and choosing those - we're saying every council will get more money. 

And one council I met with today in fact said that what that's allowed them to do for their capital roads is take a 10-year pipeline of projects. And they said, we can now deliver them because of the certainty in 18 months. And that's a council in South Australia I met with today, and that's a good thing. 

JANE NEILD: Now, Catherine, we do know that there is a difference between pledging funding for things like repairing roads, and we've had so much devastation on the roads around Victoria following storms and floods. But we have heard over the last few months that there can be a little bit of a lag between the money actually being pledged and hitting the council coffers. Is that something you're hearing about, or is that a state government issue? 

CATHERINE KING: Look, not so much. In Roads to Recovery that just - I wrote a while ago now, so every council knows exactly that money will flows - flowed through the budget into their bank accounts already. Sometimes the challenges can be, obviously, there's capacity constraints, as you mentioned at the start in terms of workforce, particularly in some of our more remote communities as well, but that's happening everywhere. 

And then, of course, there is the way in which the disaster recovery arrangements, they're not managed out of my portfolio, but when there's been floods or other disasters then the disaster recovery arrangements kick in, and they're arrangements between the Commonwealth and the state in local government areas. And, at times, they can be challenging but, again, a lot of that can be around capacity particularly when there's been disasters and there's a lot of work that needs to be done. It can be often difficult to get enough workers into that area given there's a lot of work that needs to be done in that one area. 

But that money's certainly important, and I know how important it is to local communities to get that out and into the community proactively working. 

JANE NEILD: My guest is Catherine King, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government on ABC Statewide Drive at 506. Jane Neild with you. So many aspects of your portfolios, Catherine, are kind of - you know, there's elements that really are at play in this big build, in this urgent need that we have to create more sustainable and affordable housing in Victoria and right around the country. But we are hearing of these cost blow-outs. And when it comes to repairing a road we've got less quarries, the price of building and repairing a road has gone through the roof. 

And how are we going to assure that the money the Federal Government has actually pledged for building houses is feasible, and that there aren't just going to be cost blow-outs right along the chain when it comes to labour and the materials?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah. So, one of the things that we've done, you know, obviously, is we've worked with state governments to get an agreement, a national accord to build 1.2 million homes. We know that supply is a really significant issue, a significant driver of the costs of housing but also the accessibility of rental accommodation as well as, you know, basically, putting incredible pressure on communities where you've got the workforce or you need a workforce but you can't deliver that. 

So the part of the housing, the $32 billion worth of housing programs that the Commonwealth Government has, I've got access to the Housing Support Program. That's the job that I've got to do. We’ll be saying a little bit about that. And what we've done is worked with state governments. So we've put money; $1 billion to - every state across the country -  to look at the infrastructure that's needed to bring housing developments on, and they'll come to me in September with the projects that they're going to spend that money on. So substantial amounts of money have gone there, and I know local councils are working with their state governments on that now. But we've also got over $500 million that's going directly to largely local councils and again, state governments in some instances, to look at; how do we actually help with planning? We know there are shortages of town planners. We know that trying to get new town planners into areas to actually get development approvals through has been difficult in some areas. So there's some money and some announcements we'll be making about that. And then we've also got money on the table to try and take some of the costs out of these developments so that they actually can come to fruition. 

So there's a lot of planning applications already approved for housing, but the developer might be just waiting saying, well, look, it's going to cost us too much in terms of putting the utilities or the roads in, the water or other sewerage infrastructure, so our councils can apply for some assistance with that to really bring these developments on board. And that's part of my job is to try and work with councils on those developments to actually see, you know, where are we able to get those homes moving really much more quickly than they are currently.

JANE NIELD: Is there a risk that if we parachute planners in - because we know that all councils are really struggling to actually approve things and get that planning process moving as quickly as we need to create this new housing stock - is there a risk that some of the sensitivities around planning applications and what we might not have approved in the past will get fast tracked, and we'll end up with a mix, in rural and regional communities especially, that could maybe in ten years’ time, we look back and go, why on earth did we carve up that farmland just to put some houses in? 

CATHERINE KING: Yeah. Well, I think - I mean, there are planning schemes and overlays in - and strategic plans that councils have already. We're not proposing to mess around with those. Really, it's about just trying to get some of the development approvals through, because there's just real capacity constraints within councils in terms of that. And so the mix of projects I've got before me as part of the Housing Support Program are capacity-building, are really a range of things. So that - a range of things from starting courses, looking at cadetships, getting more people into thinking about town planning as a great career. And I can guarantee any young people or year 12 students thinking about it, you will always have a job if you go into town planning, and you can travel the world with it as well. It's a really good career and an important one to participate in. 

And so really what that's about is working very closely with councils about what they've got on their books already, trying to make sure that we can bring those to fruition. And I think about when we were last in government, in my own home community of Ballarat. I think as part of the nation building stimulus, I think we gave the council then money to actually plan the whole Lucas estate. And if people know Ballarat well, all of the growth in Ballarat, all of the new housing, new and affordable housing, that estate has just really developed very, very quickly and very well, building that amenity in as well. And that happened because we put that investment into the capacity of councils to actually bring forward their planning approvals and actually do well-located housing with good amenity. And also part of the Housing Support Program means that we're building some of that amenity as we go.

So community infrastructure could be part of what they apply for as part of that program, to actually build that as we go. Build the parks, and gardens, and libraries, and community facilities in - as we're building the housing, rather than waiting until the housings are there, and then have people saying: we haven't got any amenity, what do we do? So that's really what the - part of the infrastructure portfolio in housing that I've got responsibility for. 

JANE NIELD: Yeah, well, you're certainly right that an area like Lucas, I mean, you probably find 20 houses for rent in some of those areas if you look on a real estate app now. But what I actually heard from a town planner I spoke to off the record a couple of weeks ago was that there's plenty of houses, they're just not the right type of houses for the people who need them most. And it was single people, and people in one or two person families that really struggle because they can't afford to rent a house that's a four bedroom, two bathroom in one of these new estates. 

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, exactly. And I guess that's why, you know, you saw again in my own hometown, you know, you have people like Nightingale housing building one to two bedroom apartments, beautifully located right in the heart of the city, close to public transport. And you're starting to see some of that. That won't be sense - you know, won't be right for every community. But they're the sorts of things that we're looking at in really developing those precincts up. I want - as part of the build, I want people to be able to have - to live in a well-located home close to amenity, and places that actually people want to live in. And that's really good for developers to build good projects like that, but also good for local councils, because it means people stay, want to come into your community and want to invest and be part of that community as well. So that's really part of the mix of what we're looking for. 

JANE NIELD: Well, Catherine King, I know you have an event with the PM tonight who's going to address some of the local government representatives who are in Canberra. And then after this week, you only have to be back in Canberra mid-August. Do you have plans for a break? Or is it back to Ballarat and try and do more on the local end of things? 

CATHERINE KING: I will be back in Ballarat. I am going to take a week off. I think it's school holidays in Victoria at the moment. So I think we're going to head up- I think we've got an RV trip booked that we had booked pre-COVID, so I think I'm not- I must admit I'm not overly looking forward to being - my husband and I and our 16-year-old on the road, having a look at Ayers Rock, because I've been, but my husband and son haven't been. So we're going to do that for four or five days, and then I've got work to do in Darwin on the Saturday, and then we're back home and back into it. But yeah, I will take a little bit of time off in the break, but that's what we're doing. So I may or may not survive it, we shall see.

JANE NIELD: I'd be very interested to do a pothole count on your trip, Catherine, and see if there's more potholes in Victoria, South Australia or the NT. Maybe as a Minister, you could do a little survey for us. 

CATHERINE KING: I'll certainly have a good look at the roads conditions. Quite a few of them. We've got some federal funding in, so I'll see how the projects are going. 

JANE NIELD: Thank you very much. The Honourable Catherine King there, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government joining us here on ABC Statewide drive at 5.20 on this Wednesday afternoon.