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Different but the same: Kevin Crompton down under for SOLACE

In May this year I had the privilege of representing SOLACE and making the opening keynote at the LGMA National Congress in Perth. I stayed on as a delegate at the Congress and gave an address to the Commonwealth Department of Local Government in Canberra. The trip also gave me the opportunity to travel and I enjoyed short stays at Uluru, Margaret River and in Sydney. It was an amazing experience from both a professional and personal point of view.

First and foremost I want to thank John Ravlic and his LGMA team for their hospitality throughout my stay. I am looking forward to repaying some of this when the 2012 President of the LGMA, Ray Burton, and hopefully John, visit the SOLACE Summit in Coventry in October (www.solacesummit.wordpress.com).

My first experiences of Australia on arrival made me quite nervous about giving a keynote on the subject of ‘connecting communities’ and, in particular, sharing learning from the events leading up to and after the UK riots of last August. My first observations very much focused on the differences between our two nations.

Australia struck me as a land of opportunity relatively unscathed by the GFC and with mineral wealth beyond anything in the UK. In comparison to Tottenham, here was a land with plenty of jobs, good prospects and lots of opportunity. In my first few days I could find little evidence of the community cohesion issues that exist in the UK and found myself puzzling over what lessons I could share based on my UK experiences, particularly those in Haringey and Luton. I found myself much drawn to negatives along the lines of don’t build all your social housing in one place, think carefully about integration for new immigrants and continue to work through schools and the arts to promote belief that the Australian ‘dream’ is still alive and that cultural diversity is to be celebrated. That what I first saw was not quite the case, I came to understand by the end of my stay.

Let me begin with the ‘land of opportunity’ theme. One of my first learning points was to understand the complexity of the fly-in/fly-out economy that is being generated by the growth in the mining industry. This is an expanding industry hungry for both skilled and unskilled labour. The consequence is an employment market that is Australia-wide, with workers flying in from thousands of miles to work their shift at the site. The only restriction to this movement seems to be the extent of the airline network. This is raising some issues for Australians. While the wealth being generated by the industry is welcome, there are adverse impacts, not least of which is the generation of skill shortages in public sector services in many states. The irony of the fact that local government in the UK is dramatically downsizing the workforce (1000 jobs lost in Haringey alone) while speakers at the Congress were talking about a shortfall of 150,000 skilled workers in one state alone was not lost on me or the audience.

Another issue concerned the corporate responsibility of mining corporations. While levies on the minerals extracted form a large portion of some states’ revenues, there was concern that the companies’ contribution to local communities was not what it should be. In the worst cases, small communities were having their local land torn up for what they argued was little long-term benefit to them. What would be left, they argued, when the mining was finished and the corporation moved on to the next site? This was leading to intense debate in some communities.

At a national level solutions to the labour shortages requested by the mining companies have also been controversial, such as the widely reported agreement to allow a mining company to have 2000 ‘green cards’ so they could import more foreign labour. There are no easy solutions in this debate, but it was clear that Australia needs to get the balance right if it is to succeed in harnessing the vast wealth of its mineral reserves while maintaining the integrity of communities near the mines and indeed those who are in danger of becoming the dormitory homes for the fly-in/fly-out workers. Equally, as skill shortages grow, Australia will have to import more labour and this will increase the number of immigrant communities which will continue to raise the challenges of integration and community cohesion.

My second theme is my personal search for the ‘Dreamtime’, which allowed me to get some insight into the current status of the Indigenous peoples of Australia. Uluru is beyond doubt a stunning piece of geology and history. Standing as it does in the middle of an otherwise fairly barren desert, it is easy to understand why it has such significance to the culture and cultural history of the Anangu – the local Aboriginal group.

Much has been done by the Australian government to try and address the grievances of the original inhabitants of the country. Much land has been returned to the ownership of Aboriginal people including Uluru, which is run by a Council including the traditional owners the Anangu, rather like a national park. The nearby resort complex has recently been bought and is being developed as a place for cultural tourism.

This all sounds good as a strategy. Unfortunately I found some slight dissonance between this strategy and my experience. All the workers at the resort appeared to be of either western or Indochinese origin. With the exception of the group of elderly women who sat on the lawn producing paintings and other original artefacts for sale, the Anangu appeared to me to be very much hidden from the whole scenario. Even the campfire storyteller and the dance group were from another Indigenous group. I know this because there is a practice now exercised across the nation of thanking the traditional (original) owners of a particular piece of land and their ancestors for use of that land. These members of other groups duly paid their respect to the local group on whose land they are now living. It is quite a moving statement to hear and one that was made throughout the Congress and at all public meetings I attended. While I heard the odd isolated cynical remark about its use, it certainly left an impression on me and came across as clear recognition of the rights of the traditional owners of the land.

The Aboriginals I spoke to also explained the challenges of living between two cultures. The bush tales storyteller told me he had to prise his sons from their video games to put them in his 4WD to take them into the desert to teach them bush skills.

In Canberra, a Government Minister talked about the difficulties of supporting groups whose nomadic traditions worked against conventional modern-day investment in communities in order to provide jobs, homes and community facilities. Colleagues at the Congress told me about difficulties with young Aboriginal children being ‘let loose’ in towns and cities. This was in contrast to some other information on successful settlements and or integration elsewhere in Australia.

Perhaps for me the saddest aspect of my visit to Uluru was to be sidled up to by Susan. An Aboriginal woman in her mid-20s, Susan was evidently high on drink and it was clear that for some cigarettes and a beer she would make me ‘happy’. She was confident that Jesus looked after her and I asked whether he lived in the Dreamtime.“Yes,” she replied, “he does.” I made my excuses and left with a feeling that here was a young woman trapped between cultures and facing the worst side of our modern society.

The conference program was very stimulating, with excellent speakers and workshops. One of the big themes was sustainability and on this subject Australia appears to me to be well ahead. Monica Barone, CEO of the City of Sydney, gave an impressive summary of the work going on in that City to reduce carbon emissions.

Her opening quote was from Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” She then outlined the Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan adopted by the City. I was particularly struck by the village plan concept in which local action plans are adopted and progress reported back to the community. The level of community engagement in the program is something that has taken similar concepts in the UK to a higher level. Sydney’s plans have been well crafted to fit consistently within a bigger city-wide strategy for sustainability, involving the use of more green energy sources and other methods, with a target for 70 per cent carbon reduction by 2030.

The strong advocacy for the role of local government in leading this agenda struck a chord with me, as Haringey has developed a 40:20 program with similar characteristics.

The structure of government in Australia is of course different from that in the UK, however speakers such as Stephanie Foster and Jude Munro gave presentations which, with some slight modification, would not be out of place at a UK conference.

Perennial issues such as the right levels of devolution between national, regional and local government were explored, with both speakers seeking to articulate a ‘mature partnership’ approach. This is about recognising the relative strengths and weaknesses of different tiers of government. National government should promote strategy and integration of strategy across public and private sectors and take the difficult decisions on cross-boundary issues. Local government delivers services which, being much closer to the community, it is best placed to do. The delegation of resources from national and state governments to local government was another common theme. This type of relationship was evident in the presentation by Chris Adams on the Pilbara Cities Vision, which I can only describe as a Milton Keynes project gone global. The challenge of developing new towns, new housing and new communities was well illustrated in this presentation.

It was, however, given to two speakers to set out some of the challenges facing us across the world. Phillip Adams gave his reflection on the modern world. He talked about the rising suicide rate in Greece, linking this to the GFC and the challenges of a multicultural and global world. One comment particularly resonated with me, given my experiences in Luton and Haringey: “Let us not let God get in the way of what binds us together.” This was Phillip’s way of saying that what binds us together as people, whatever our background, is still greater than that which separates us, a well thought-out articulation for societies in which we promote our common values and respect and tolerate our differences. This very much reminded me of the principles behind our ‘Luton in Harmony’ campaign, which sought to do precisely that.

CEO of ICMA, Bob O’Neill illustrated the same point from the findings of research into local government across the world. There were five common challenges identified in community surveys across the globe: jobs, safety, education, healthcare and environment. These would feature in most UK council plans I have seen. Which means that we can all learn from each other and in these difficult times we must not cut back on investment in learning and development if we are to secure the future public sector talent to develop and implement strategies to tackle these issues and provide good quality services.

Despite my early feelings that the UK and Australia are very different, by the end of the conference I concluded that while we might be at different stages, the issues and themes are similar. Australia is currently reviewing local government finance, facing the challenge of care for an increasingly ageing population and seeking new ways to invigorate the economy, create jobs and ensure communities have a high quality of life in our global economy. These issues are alive and well in the UK. As Indigenous Australians said in conversation with me, ”Knowledge is nothing unless it is shared”, and we can learn from each other as we tackle these common issues and challenges.

The final observation I want to offer is about the similarities between us as professionals. I found in Australian local government colleagues the same passion and commitment I find in the UK. I was impressed, as I frequently am at home, by the creativity that we bring to our work. The debates about how best we can serve the local democracy we all subscribe to while at times being frustrated by the ‘politics’ was again very familiar. Late night conversations often focused on the right balance between political and professional leadership in modern local government.

As I am putting the finishing touches to this article, the Olympic torch is about to make its way through Tottenham and Haringey. There is still much to do to realise our ambition here, and to ensure that we put right those things which contributed to last year’s riots. I hope this celebration of the torch will provide Tottenham with a stage to show that things have changed and that Haringey’s plans for developing that community are well on track to succeed.

Thank you to all of you I met in Australia for the warm welcome. This article hardly does my visit justice, both as a professional and personal experience. I haven’t shared my quest to see a live kangaroo – seven days in Oz before I saw one, and that was in a zoo! And this despite everyone I met showing me photos of the ones living next to their house. Nor have I yet revealed that it took me 10 days to work out how to use my electric adaptor.

Never mind, at least I am well prepared should I visit again – so thank you, colleagues, once again for such a stimulating trip.

* Kevin Crompton is Chief Executive of Haringey Council until 30 September 2012, after which he is leaving to develop his business providing interim leadership and problem-solving services to the public sector. He delivered the opening keynote address at the 2012 LGMA National Congress.

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