Councils in fire-ravaged regions of southern NSW are calling for the federal government to free-up more “untied” funds and give them the autonomy to prioritise recovery needs within their communities.
The Commonwealth has allocated $2 billion as part of its National Bushfire Recovery Fund providing cash grants and concessional loans to support affected small businesses, primary producers, the tourism industry and local councils.
In the state’s Southern Highlands south-west of Sydney, where several homes were destroyed by the Morton fire, Mayor Duncan Gair said bureaucracy to access the grants was too restrictive and was delaying impacted communities from returning to normality.
“Untied grants are the best way to help communities, because straight up we can spend money, on the ground, in the community,” Cr Gair said.
“Councils are the ones who are closest to the communities who know what their communities want, they’re in consultation with them on a daily basis and they don’t have to travel very far to see the devastation.
“Waiting for grants, waiting for paperwork, waiting for the detail, and waiting for the acceptance of whether your grant has been successful or not is time-consuming, it’s frustrating, and the community is forced to wait for this process to be completed.”
The needs are obvious
Cr Gair said the need to replace damaged infrastructure was obvious and that work should not be impacted by red tape.
“It just seems to me that councils are being treated as the junior boy in the school, when they have the experience and the knowledge to get on with the job if they’re given the resources to do so,” he said.
“We shouldn’t have to wait for a grant scheme to be put in place – if a bridge has been burned out, it needs replacing. It’s as simple as that.
“We can report to the state and federal government about how we’re spending the money, but untie the purse strings and let the money get to the fire-affected communities now.”
In the Shoalhaven, the Currowan fire destroyed 291 houses, 25 public facilities and 484 outbuildings, with more than 400 damaged.
The local council is calling for a $50 million state and federally funded recovery package for the region.
“We’ve got $1 million from the federal government, which is mostly untied, which is great, but we’re going to need an awful lot more than that,” Mayor Amanda Findley said.
“We may as well keep asking for money, because if we don’t, we’ll get nothing.”
Reallocate unused grant funding
Cr Findley suggested redistributing previously allocated grants to better reflect the needs of the community now.
“We have had $20 million jobs growth-type of packages in the past that we’re still trying to work through, and I think there’s an opportunity to make that funding work better,” she said.
The NSW government has pledged $1 billion to help rebuild infrastructure such as roads, rail lines, bridges, schools, health clinics and communications facilities.
During a visit to the Buxton Public School on Tuesday, Labor leader Jodie McKay said she would like to see more of that funding freed up for councils to use without strings attached.
“I’d like to know where the $1 billion from [Premier] Gladys Berejiklian is going. They say that’s for infrastructure, but where is it actually going?” Ms McKay said.
“At least the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is saying, ‘We’ve got a little bit going here and a little bit going here’. Gladys has said nothing on where that money is going.
“So I think if that’s a better option that councils get a say in how the money’s spent, because councils do know what’s happening in their local areas, then I’d be supportive of that.”