Small rural shires face a number of challenges.
They often include dispersed communities with different needs and priorities; they have less capacity to raise revenue and it costs relatively more to deliver services and maintain public infrastructure (roads, bridges, parks, buildings) than larger urban municipalities.
The Hepburn Shire is recent and artificial.
It was created by the Kennett Government in 1995 by merging the Shires of Creswick, Daylesford and Glenlyon, and parts of the Shires of Talbot, Clunes and Kyneton. The intention was to deliver better and more efficient services for local communities through amalgamation.
The Shire includes the towns of Clunes, Creswick, Daylesford and Trentham and the smaller communities of Glenlyon, Allendale, Kingston, Leonard’s Hill, Lyonville, Newlyn Denver and Smeaton.
Hepburn has a population of about 15,000 people and the Council spends about $37 million per year on services, infrastructure and administration. About 60% of the Shire’s revenue comes from rates, the remainder from grants and fees.
The Shire is tiny compared to Council’s in metropolitan Melbourne and regional cities which are often 10 times bigger. For example, Ballarat has a population of 107,000 and an income of $242M.
Competition for attention and resources between communities is more of a challenge when there is only a weak identification with the Shire as a whole.
In practice there is little engagement or shared interest between the main towns in the Shire. For example, locals identify much more strongly with Daylesford and Hepburn Springs than they do with Hepburn Shire.
The communities in the Shire have more in common with the larger regional centres of Ballarat (Clunes, Creswick and Daylesford), and Kyneton (Glenlyon and Trentham) than with one another.
Each of the local towns has different needs, interests and priorities, made more complicated by competing interests within communities (e.g. economic, cultural, environmental, social) . Add to that the people who don’t live in the towns.
For Hepburn, balancing priorities between different communities in the Shire is made more difficult because community expectations are high with a small and stretched budget.
Where resources are scarce and not all needs and aspirations can be met, it is important to start with an agreed set of principles for planning and setting priorities across the municipality.
Those principles have to promote the delivery of equitable, sustainable and efficient service delivery and infrastructure.
The new Local Government Act makes it clear that Council must have a strategic plan that takes account of different community interests.
In practice, it is not always clear how the Shire balances competing priorities.
The Shire’s principles for planning and priorities should be transparent and open to scrutiny and debate by the community.
The alternative is parochialism and Rafferty’s Rules.