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State’s roads initiative takes first step towards ‘easing burden on ratepayers’

Geoff Helisma|

The burden of managing the valley’s roads has long been a difficult and contentious issue for Clarence Valley Council (CVC) – some of this burden might be reduced if the NSW Government lives up to its election promise to provide “$500 million over five years for the Fixing Local Roads program”, as outlined in the government’s 2019/20 budget.

On January 23, the government took the first step towards fulfilling the promise when it announced it “has established an expert panel to identify up to 15,000 kilometres of council-managed roads in rural and regional areas to hand back to the state, easing the burden on local ratepayers”.

The panel – Wendy Machin (NRMA president and the panel’s chair), Peter Duncan AM, Jillian Kilby, John Roydhouse, Michael Kilgariff and Peter Tegart – is due to report in July 2021 “at the earliest”, Minister for Regional Transport and Roads Paul Toole said in a media release.

“The NSW Government is … taking back the road maintenance costs for up to 15,000km of roads, easing pressure on local councils and ratepayers.

“The independent panel will provide advice on which roads should be transferred to the state and how to prioritise them.”

Clarence Valley Council manages and maintains around 2,445 km of roads and 285 timber and concrete bridges and is “still required to find operational savings of approximately $4 million over a two-year period”, to meet its already declared ‘Fit for the Future’ status, staff advised councillors at the September 2019 CVC meeting.

At that meeting staff also advised that CVC “has had discussions with the local member regarding the proposal and expressed the importance and need for the state government to take over [regional road] Clarence Way in order to provide suitable funding to allow for upgrade works, which includes provision of a sealed surface”.

However, the government has “not advised of the arrangements that surround their proposal”, staff wrote.

Armidale Road and Orara Way were also identified at the October CVC meeting, as roads “of significant strategic and/or economic value” that could be considered in the government’s program.

Meanwhile, NSW Labor has warned that all may not be as it is being portrayed, “fear[ing] it is actually an underhanded ploy to slash vital maintenance funding to councils”, shadow minister for rural roads Mick Veitch said in a media release.

Mr Veitch said his concern is “the government may only take responsibility of low-maintenance roads while also cutting council funds to uphold the remaining roads … leaving [councils] with high-cost roads and less funding to maintain them”.

When asked how he came to his conclusion, Mr Vietch told the Independent that the “transfer of roads to the state” means that a “larger amount of roads will be put out to tender” and that, as a result, the government could reduce grant funding to councils for maintaining regional roads.

He said there were “no guarantees that councils will get contracts to maintain those roads” and may “have to put off staff” as a result.

Local Government NSW has welcomed the panel’s appointment, describing the maintenance of regional roads as “one of the most significant problems facing councils”.

“In 2018/19, around $820 million was cost-shifted to NSW councils, part of a burden estimated at $6.2 billion over 10 years,” LGNSW said in a media release.

“We trust the expert panel will work closely with LGNSW and member councils to ensure sensible choices are made.

“Councils must be consulted as the independent panel formulates its advice on which roads should be given to the state and how to prioritise each one.”

The NSW Government said in its media release: “The panel is expected to meet this month and will prepare a discussion paper and consultation strategy for public release shortly afterwards.

“The draft terms of reference will be distributed directly to councils for their consideration and feedback.”