by Elenor Hayman
The current participants of the LIP program recently sat down with the General Manager of Wollongong City Council, David Farmer, and the Lord Mayor of Wollongong, Gordon Bradbery, for a lengthy discussion about regional opportunities and challenges.
The presentation commenced with an overview of the City revitalisation project. This project covers the area bound by JJ Kelly Park, the hospital district, the University of Wollongong and the Innovation Campus, and involves the preparation of a plan for the redevelopment of the area and the generation of new jobs. Some areas of strategic focus discussed were:
The ongoing challenge of providing more affordable housing was also discussed including the complexity and costs involved in providing the necessary infrastructure and services to the planned release of 50,000 new houses in the West Dapto area, which was an eye opener to many.
The barriers to increasing the amount of higher density living options in the northern growth corridor, as per the recommendation in the recent Regional Growth and Infrastructure Plan, seemed significant. For example, there is limited aged housing on lots prime for development, and also parking concerns.
The discussion moved to topics of community needs and social concern. Despite Wollongong rating close to the median on the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) scale, currently 8% of the population lives in social housing, compared to the state average of about 4%. Both David Farmer and Mayor Gordon Bradbery saw that elevating overall living conditions in our city was an important challenge for Council and the region. The numbers show that there is plenty of wealth in the region, but also a few pockets of deep disadvantage that need empathy, understanding and support. Whilst the Council works with the Department of Housing on strategies to provide affordable housing and disperse the pockets of disadvantage throughout the community, there are plenty of barriers.
Many of the LIP cohorts were surprised to hear that whilst Council is involved in partnering with the Department of Housing to solve these challenges, it does not have prime responsibility to lead projects addressing social and community needs. Council’s budget for Community Services is apparently very small, with major provisions being for assets such as libraries, pools, neighbourhood centres and sporting grounds. Council sees that its role is to be conscious of the community’s social wellbeing needs, identify gaps, and apply influence if necessary to ensure other providers and agencies are well positioned to provide these valuable services. It was explained that areas of education, social needs, employment and health are covered by state or federal budgets and planning.
It seems that addressing many of Illawarra’s challenges is even more complex than many in the LIP first thought. Navigating through the needs and opinions of a wonderfully diverse and rich population requires leadership and coordination skill.
The current three-year election cycle seems to make it challenging for leaders to be focussed on long-term outcomes as the benefits of decisions may not be apparent to the public in the short term – i.e. at time of the next election. Leaders need to be courageous and good communicators if their decisions are to be accepted by the population. Online media needs to be used positively as it can heavily influence public opinion. Failure to do so can result in decisions being misrepresented or misunderstood, making it harder for courageous decision-makers to be re-elected.
The General Manager and Mayor were asked about the actions taken since the 2008 ICAC findings to change positively public perception of the Council. The Mayor’s expressed his opinion that problems arise in politics and leadership when there is “a focus on a person instead of the process”, and they have been working hard to rebuild the public’s trust by:-
Like Wollongong itself, Wollongong City Council employee groups come from diverse backgrounds and have very different values bases. The ICAC investigation was a very difficult time for many employees, and created a strong desire for change. When asked about changing the internal employee culture, the General Manager commented that he saw his job was to promote “the need for change and improvement and then give them the tools”, along with consistent modelling of ethics, and integrity in systems, processes and behaviours. The Lord Mayor commented on how valuable it is for councillors to set a positive model for staff, and that public arguments, as sometimes occur in other councils, can negatively affect the mood of staff and erode community confidence.
It is obvious that Wollongong Council is experiencing the pressures of expansion, redevelopment and rejuvenation and that this is being addressed through innovative leadership and management.
The LIP participants greatly valued hearing from two of the region’s most influential leaders about the Illawarra’s current challenges and exciting future opportunities. Thank you to Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery and David Farmer, General Manager of Wollongong City Council, for an open, insightful, and thought-provoking discussion.
Blog posts written by the Leadership Illawarra Program Cohort.