The Hobart City Council has copped a fair amount of flak in recent times.

The Mercury occasionally slips the boot in, pollies of all persuasions see the Capital City Council as fair game, media tarts, sorry, commentators give the Council a spray at the drop of a hat.

Case in point: Was Greg Barns right in calling the Hobart City Council “myopic and dysfunctional”? (Mercury Jan 17, 2005)

When I first read this I thought Barns was being his normal carping self. His colorful comments were in the context of his promotion of the Battery Point walkway and his applauding the State Government for removing planning powers from Council. But as a principal proponent of the walkway I took a more than usual interest in The World according to (the) Carp.

In the Battery Point debate Barns has demonstrated a rare confluence of the greater public interest and his personal view.

But leaving the waterfront aside for a moment, there are more important general questions to be considered to address Barns comments. They are, whether or not that the present Council has:
* delivered and maintained good public facilities,
* protected the environment,
* fostered business,
* encouraged good design,
* engaged with individuals and communities in decision making whilst showing competent democratic leadership in moving the city forward?, and
* in the year that represents half way to the end of the first decade of the twenty first century what plans are in place for the next 5 years?

While it is hard to answer these questions comprehensively there are some insights that can be gained by looking at a few examples. The overall conclusion is, on balance, not always positive, and in my view, as much as it hurts me to say this, tends in some ways to support Barns’ view.

We need to try harder.

Having said that, it ought to be conceded by detractors and recognised by residents generally that overall the City of Hobart has a Council it can be proud of.

Why? Because:
* The operational wing of the HCC is exceptionally well run.
* We have a dedicated and hardworking workforce, evidenced by the things we all take for granted – the non sexy operations of Council – such as the maintenance of public facilities like reserves, parks, roads and footpaths, sewage, water supply, and rubbish collection.
* The Mayor, Deputy Mayor and 10 Alderman, who, despite differences of opinion on some line items, work passionately and energetically toward betterment of our City.
* The number of recent ventures which exemplify the vision of some of the elected members.

Close to my heart

Two of those recent initiatives are close to my heart and energies. Firstly is the Council’s acquisition of a considerable portion of the Mt Nelson bushland in 2004. The backdrop of our bush land to our city is an important enduring landscape that will continue to form part of Hobart’s charm and assets. The second is the growing Council presence in providing community services to youth and our role in facilitating aged care.

It is sobering however to note that most of the successful on-going public and business ventures of the HCC, those that that required a special leadership, now date from initiatives that began over ten or more years ago –
* Salamanca Market,
* the Intercity Cycle Way,
* the Taste of Tasmania,
* the Aquatic Centre,
* the Wapping redevelopment,
* the CBD revamp, and
* Youtharc
– to name but a few.

The question needs to be asked? Are we living on the enterprise of a creative and ‘can do’ leadership from the past? Is current leadership lacking? There is no lack of initiatives from the community. So Barns may have a point about myopic view.

Key issues

And there are a number of outstanding key issues that are yet to be addressed in any comprehensive manner – future parking or not in the city, the challenge of change of shopping patterns, lifestyle changes, encouraging small business and embracing the arts culture, the ongoing land use debate and developing a positive relationship with the state government.

One needs to be reminded that our beautiful city has as its heart many long standing important institutions and places of state significance including TMAG, Botanical Gardens, RHH, Parliament, Domain, Mt Wellington and regional recreational facilities (such as the Aquatic Centre) and an important business community. History and heritage of our city always seem very close. There is an ongoing strong presence of good land use planning decisions from the past such as the creation of Wellington Park and the Domain.

We Hobartians are pretty lucky in that it doesn’t matter in which of our suburbs we make our home, as each has considerable attractions.

Many suburbs have considerable heritage needing protection. We need to defend the suburb’s good qualities with a passion. But equally important, we need to be consistent in our approach to all residents, providing many opportunities for consultation.

For better or worse, the Hobart Council has many tools and powers to make decisions. Decisions are always constrained by the law. And whatever way any individual alderman votes, the combined decisions of seven always prevail. That’s democracy (and politics) Barnsey!

The Council, in its planning decisions must comply with the provisions of the planning schemes that must address heritage, amenity issues and the streetscape. The aesthetics, if presented under the guises of the above can be considered but it is not mandatory to like a development to approve it. The old adage of “One man’s meat is another mans poison” is very relevant. Zero Davey looked good on the plate but the aftertaste was a bit ordinary.

Council must listen to the views of representations made to it from the community and often they are contradictory. The Land Use Planning Act ensures that parties can appeal any decision from Council.

Back to the waterfront

The State Governments coup de theatre in sidelining Hobart Council from Sullivan’s Cove decision making will not necessarily ensure good outcomes. I don’t rate the Marine Board Building, the old Silos or the Grand Chancellor as being icons to good planning or taste – they were all initiatives of the State Government, not Council – go figure!

To conclude, ideally all the Council’s decisions should show leadership and be made in the present with an eye to the future and with knowledge of the past.

By the time this article is published Barns will have moved on to another controversy, but I invite him to support my concept of a partnership in 2005 with the Government – to develop access to the waterfront at Battery Point, and to support other positive initiatives from some of the present aldermen who are trying to provide leadership to ‘Make Hobart Happen’. Watch this space!

Jeff Briscoe
is an Alderman on the Hobart City Council first elected in 1994, and is the Chair of the Wellington Park Trust. He is a College Teacher with the State Education Dept and is the holder of degrees in Science, Law, and Tasmanian History. Jeff is also a Director of local financial institution, Connect Credit Union.