Local authorities left in lurch

29 Mar, 2006 08:45 PM
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NEARLY 50 country towns would have no local doctor without financial assistance from their local governments.

Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) president Bill Mitchell said more than 46 local authorities in rural and regional areas were providing housing, surgeries, vehicles and income level guarantees to keep GPs in their towns.

"Some councils are paying in excess of $200,000 per annum to keep GP services in their towns," Mr Mitchell said.

"These are funds that are being diverted away from core council services like roads, public libraries and environmental health services."

Mr Mitchell said some councils also were supporting dentists and nurses in their communities.

"Towns without mainstream services struggle and local governments are filling the breech being vacated by the state and Commonwealth in the provision of equitable and adequate GP services," he said.

Mr Mitchell said local councils appeared to be increasingly subsidising medical services.

He said WALGA was not aware of any metropolitan local governments subsidising local doctors.

The State Government could implement policy instruments to address GP shortages in the bush such as increasing HECS university places for medicine and rural scholarships, Mr Mitchell said.

But local governments had to step in because these instruments were not being used by the state, he said.

Mr Mitchell said local governments encouraged and supported professionals to move to rural areas by conducting rural subdivision and housing projects.

"But the State Government headworks subsidy does not extend to residential developments," he said.

"Rural councils find they have lost money in these subdivisions because income from the land sales often doesn't cover the cost of the headworks.

"Some councils are even having to provide housing for State Government employees such as police and teachers to maintain these services in their area.

"It's not clear if trading essential services for housing is an official policy of the State Government and its agencies, but that is the way it regularly operates for country areas when they need doctors or police."

Mr Mitchell said the State Government had left local authorities with a major financial burden to fund road projects.

"Regulations and permit increases necessary for land clearing for new road construction and road widening has meant local governments must spend more resources and take more time to maintain the road network for the community," he said.

"But changes in Australian standards often leave councils bearing the cost of those increased standards without state recognition of the increased costs."

Mr Mitchell said it was difficult to understand the funding priorities of the State Government's Safer Roads program.

"Funding seems to be focused in the main on the state-managed road network and yet 65pc of serious and fatal crashes occur on local-managed network roads," he said.

Mr Mitchell said WALGA called on the State Government to increase telecommunications access for rural people.

He said wholesale-priced ISP wireless providers and access to council-owned telco towers would make it more viable for service providers to enter rural markets.

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