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What this report is about

Extreme rainfall across eastern Australia in 2021 and 2022 led to a series of major flood events in New South Wales.

This audit assessed how effectively the NSW Government provided emergency accommodation and temporary housing in response to the early 2022 Northern Rivers and late 2022 Central West flood events.

Responsible agencies included in this audit were the Department of Communities and Justice, NSW Reconstruction Authority, the former Department of Planning and Environment, the Department of Regional NSW and the Premier’s Department.

Findings

The Department of Communities and Justice rapidly provided emergency accommodation to displaced persons immediately following these flood events.

There was no plan in place to guide a temporary housing response and agencies did not have agency-level plans for implementing their responsibilities.

The NSW Government rapidly procured and constructed temporary housing villages. However, the amount of temporary housing provided did not meet the demand.

There is an extensive waitlist for temporary housing and the remaining demand in the Northern Rivers is unlikely to be met. The NSW Reconstruction Authority has not reviewed this list to confirm its accuracy.

Demobilisation plans for the temporary housing villages have been developed, but there are no long-term plans in place for the transition of tenants out of the temporary housing.

Agencies are in the process of evaluating the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing.

The findings from the 2022 State-wide lessons process largely relate to response activities.

Audit recommendations

The NSW Reconstruction Authority should:

  • Develop a plan for the provision of temporary housing.
  • Review the temporary housing waitlist.
  • Determine a timeline for demobilising the temporary housing villages.
  • Develop a strategy to manage the transition of people into long-term accommodation.
  • Develop a process for state-wide recovery lessons learned.

All audited agencies should:

  • Finalise evaluations of their role in the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing.
  • Develop internal plans for implementing their roles under state-wide plans.

Extreme rainfall across eastern Australia in 2021 and 2022 led to a series of major flood events in New South Wales. In response, the NSW Government declared each of these events a natural disaster and made available a wide range of support for affected individuals and businesses. The flooding experienced by the State was widespread and its severity caused significant destruction in communities across the State. Some of the most significant damage occurred in the Northern Rivers and Central West regions of New South Wales.

Whilst areas of the Northern Rivers are prone to regular flooding, the scale of flooding in 2022 had not been experienced in the region before. On 28 February 2022, the Wilsons River in Lismore reached a height of 14.4 metres, approximately 2.3 metres higher than the previous record. A second flood occurred on 30 March 2022, with the river reaching 11.4 metres. The flooding in the region was extensive, affecting towns including Lismore, Coraki, Woodburn and Ballina. Between late February and early April 2022, 13 lives were lost in the Northern Rivers floods. In addition, 4,055 properties were deemed uninhabitable, and a further 10,849 properties were assessed as damaged. Approximately 4,000 people had to be evacuated from Lismore alone during this period, with thousands displaced from their homes across the region.

In the Central West, on 14 November 2022, the Lachlan River at Forbes peaked at 10.6 metres and was categorised as major flooding due to the inundation of extensive rural areas with properties, villages and towns isolated. On the same day in Eugowra, the Mandagery Creek peaked at 9.8 metres, passing the previous record of 9.6 metres in 1950. Flooding occurred in other areas of the Central West including Parkes, Molong, Cowra and Canowindra. Two lives were lost in the town of Eugowra with 80% of homes and businesses in the town damaged.

This audit assessed the following two areas of NSW Government support provided in response to these flood events:

  • Provision of emergency accommodation: short-term accommodation provided to displaced persons unable to return to their own home in an emergency situation.
  • Provision of temporary housing provided in the form of temporary pods and caravans.

The Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) is responsible for the provision of emergency accommodation and other welfare services in response to a disaster event. With regards to temporary housing, the following agencies were involved in this audit:

  • Resilience NSW was the lead agency responsible for recovery and led the implementation of the temporary housing program under the oversight of the Chair, Housing Taskforce (HTF) from July 2022. On 16 December 2022, Resilience NSW was abolished, with some staff transferred to the NSW Police Force, Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) and DCJ. The remaining staff were transitioned to the newly established NSW Reconstruction Authority.
  • The Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) chaired the HTF until July 2022 and led the process for the identification and evaluation of temporary housing village sites. On 1 January 2024, DPE was abolished and the DPE functions discussed in this report now form part of the Department of Planning, Housing and Infrastructure.
  • NSW Public Works (NSWPW), a branch of the Department of Regional NSW (DRNSW) procured and managed the construction of the pods used in this program, and procured the caravans used as part of the temporary housing response.

The then DPC (now Premier’s Department (PD)) was responsible for whole-of-government policy advice, convening the Crisis Policy Committee of Cabinet, and whole-of-government communications.

This audit assessed how effectively the NSW Government provided emergency and temporary housing in response to the early 2022 Northern Rivers and late 2022 Central West flood events. We addressed this objective by examining whether the audited agencies:

  • effectively planned for the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing prior to the flood events
  • provided emergency accommodation and temporary housing to meet the needs of affected communities in response to the flood events
  • are effectively capturing lessons learned in relation to their provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing as part of the flood response.

There is a State-level plan in place to guide the approach to emergency accommodation

The Welfare Services Functional Area Supporting Plan (WSFASP, the plan) is a supporting plan to the New South Wales Emergency Management Plan (EMPLAN). The plan outlines the responsibilities of the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) for the coordination and delivery of disaster welfare services in New South Wales. This includes the provision of emergency accommodation services. The plan in place during the flood events outlined the responsibilities of DCJ and the former Office of Emergency Management (OEM), some responsibilities of which have since transitioned to the NSW Reconstruction Authority (the Reconstruction Authority). The plan sets out a framework for government and non-government organisations to coordinate to provide key welfare services during an emergency, and outlines agreed roles and responsibilities. The plan outlines preparedness measures and arrangements for the provision of key welfare services during the response to and recovery from emergencies in New South Wales.

The plan details the organisations and key positions involved in welfare services, including their overall roles and responsibilities, and a basic structure for the delivery of disaster welfare services. For example, the plan states that both the former Department of Families and Communities Services and the not-for-profit Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) are responsible for emergency accommodation but does not clarify the detailed responsibilities associated with this role. These provide a State-wide, though not detailed, approach to emergency accommodation and welfare services in a disaster recovery context.

There was no plan in place to guide the temporary housing response, despite the NSW Government utilising this type of response in a previous emergency event

The State-level emergency planning documents do not contemplate the need for temporary housing as a government disaster response. Although there was a temporary housing response to the Black Summer bushfires in 2019–20, albeit on a smaller scale, no specific plans were in place to guide this response or the flood events in 2021–22. The NSW Government therefore had to develop its approach to addressing demand for temporary housing whilst responding to the flood emergency as it was occurring.

A partnership was established between the NSW Government and the Minderoo Foundation in 2020 to provide 100 pods to people whose homes were destroyed in the Black Summer bushfires. The initial rollout consisted of four-person pods, however the need for greater capacity was identified, with larger, family-sized pods developed for up to six people. The implementation of this program did not include formalising the work completed in documented plans for future use in response to other emergency events.

A plan that sets out how temporary housing should be used is in place in Queensland. The Queensland Government released a Temporary Emergency Accommodation (TEA) plan in 2021 which describes the arrangements, roles and responsibilities of key organisations critical to supporting displaced community members after the closure of an evacuation centre. The TEA plan outlines the five phases in the provision of accommodation support which includes temporary housing recovery. This demonstrates that a plan for the use of temporary accommodation would not be unprecedented.

Without plans in place to respond to all aspects of an emergency, decision makers are forced to be reactive in their decision making or to develop these plans while also responding to the events. In this specific instance, the government was forced to develop governance structures and perform tasks such as options analysis and site selection for temporary housing during the immediate aftermath of the flood events.

The Reconstruction Authority has acknowledged the need for a formalised plan for temporary housing responses and has started work to develop this in preparation for future flood events. It advised that the Housing Taskforce (HTF) has begun this work by performing assessments and reviews of high-risk areas and engaging with local councils and community groups. The Reconstruction Authority is also developing a Recovery Readiness Checklist, which will include preparedness for the provision of temporary housing in an emergency. Pre-event recovery planning specific to Local Government Areas (LGAs) is also underway, with the Reconstruction Authority developing tailored checklists which cover the provision of temporary housing. These tools will form part of the State's recovery response under the NSW Recovery Plan, which the Reconstruction Authority is currently in the process of updating. The Reconstruction Authority advises that this update will include identifying responsibilities in relation to the temporary housing response and recovery more broadly.

The WSFASP in place during the flood events had not been reviewed and updated in line with its planning requirements

Plans which outline the coordination and delivery of services in response to an emergency are imperative to ensure all required activities are completed, and the needs of affected communities are met. Plans also serve as a common reference point for decision making. Out of date plans can result in unclear roles and responsibilities, requiring agencies to make improvised decisions due to the urgent nature of emergency response. This creates a risk of key activities not being fulfilled and community needs going unmet.

The WSFASP in place during the flood response was last updated and endorsed by the State Emergency Management Committee (SEMC) in June 2018. As part of the planning requirements outlined in the plan, the State Welfare Services Functional Area Coordinator (WelFAC) is required to ensure the plan is reviewed every five years, or when relevant aspects require review following emergency operations or changes to legislation. The State WelFAC is an officer from DCJ responsible for the monitoring, support and coordination of disaster welfare services in New South Wales.

In 2020, a machinery of government change was implemented which established Resilience NSW as a public service executive agency and transferred persons employed in OEM to Resilience NSW. Despite these legislative changes, the plan had not been updated in line with its requirements to reflect these and subsequent changes, as OEM was still listed as one of the two agencies responsible for the coordination and delivery of disaster welfare services. Similarly, the plan had not been updated to reflect emergency operations changes with ADRA listed as the responsible coordinator for the provision of emergency accommodation services, despite no longer being responsible for this service.

The WSFASP has since been updated to reflect these changes and was endorsed by the SEMC in September 2023. The current WSFASP aligns with the welfare services responsibilities following the transfer of the welfare services functional area to DCJ in 2023. This includes the role of DCJ as the lead agency for the WSFASP, and DCJ and the Housing Contact Centre (HCC) within DCJ as the coordinator of emergency accommodation. The updated plan also provides an outline of the key welfare services that are delivered by the functional area, including emergency accommodation, personal support, essential food and grocery items, and transition from emergency accommodation. The outline provides a description of each service and the agency, team or non-government organisation responsible for coordinating the service.

Agencies did not have agency-level plans in place for implementing their responsibilities under State-level emergency accommodation and temporary housing plans

The State EMPLAN establishes a framework for sub plans, supporting plans and related policy instruments and guidelines. It states that a supporting plan should describe the support which is to be provided to the controlling or coordinating authority during emergency operations and be an action plan which describes how an agency or functional area is to be coordinated in order to fulfill the roles and responsibilities allocated. Without this more detailed guidance being in place, there is no common reference point for individuals within an agency to refer to when implementing the broader State-level plans, such as the WSFASP.

The WSFASP defines emergency accommodation and outlines the government and non-government organisations responsible for its provision. It does not provide a detailed description of the specific roles and responsibilities related to its provision. DCJ does not have an agency-level plan in place that specifies these in more detail, and did not have any standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place to guide the process of housing displaced persons in emergency accommodation.

The absence of SOPs to guide this process can increase the chance of inconsistent implementation of the WSFASP, with a reliance on the experience of staff to complete tasks to house people in emergency accommodation. For example, at the onset of an emergency, staff in the HCC contact local accommodation venues such as hotels and motels to determine availability in the area. They may also book blocks of rooms in preparation for housing displaced persons. At the time of the flood events, there was no documentation which detailed the process for DCJ staff to follow and these tasks were not recorded anywhere as requiring completion before a disaster occurred.

DCJ has advised that they have since developed internal processes which form part of the training program for Disaster Welfare staff. In addition to this, the HCC has developed a guide which steps out the various processes relating to the provision of emergency accommodation, as well as outlining the different roles and responsibilities within the HCC in relation to these processes.

As noted, there is no State-level plan in place to guide the temporary housing response. As a result, there is no framework to guide this process at an agency level for the Reconstruction Authority. The absence of both State and agency-level plans guiding the provision of temporary housing at the time of the flood events meant that agencies were required to develop a process to follow at the same time as responding to the flood events.

Appropriate governance structures were established quickly and changed as needed to reflect recovery needs

The State Recovery Committee (SRC) was activated following the 2019–20 bushfires and was still operating at the time of the 2022 floods. As part of this, the SRC had a terms of reference which included responsibilities of the SRC and a membership list. The responsibilities of the SRC in the terms of reference are to:

  • provide strategic direction in relation to disaster recovery
  • oversee reconstruction and recovery efforts in disaster impacted areas
  • provide senior leadership to facilitate whole-of-government coordination
  • monitor and report to the Premier, Deputy Premier and Cabinet on the progress of recovery efforts in disaster impacted areas.

Once the flood events commenced on 28 February 2022, the SRC increased its meeting frequency to every two days initially, for a total of 13 meetings in March. The SRC continued to meet at least twice a week from mid-April until the end of May, at which point it reduced gradually in frequency to weekly and then fortnightly. The SRC continued to meet throughout all of 2022 and 2023.

The SRC established a range of subcommittees to assist with recovery efforts. These subcommittees were operational from March 2022 onwards. Subcommittees had terms of reference setting out their role and were chaired by appropriate agencies with operational responsibilities that aligned with those roles. The Health and Wellbeing subcommittee was established as part of this and initially had responsibility for the provision of both emergency accommodation and temporary housing. This subcommittee was chaired by a relevant Senior Executive in DCJ.

As noted above, none of the whole-of-government plans prior to the flood events allocated responsibility to an agency or subcommittee for constructing and managing temporary housing. Although temporary housing had been utilised by the government previously in response to the 2019–20 bushfires, its provision had never been implemented on the scale required in response to the flood events.

In early March, the SRC created a new subcommittee: the Housing Taskforce (HTF). The HTF contained key staff from a wide variety of agencies, as well as other key stakeholders like local councils where appropriate, and was chaired by a Senior Executive from the Planning Branch of the Department of Planning and Environment (DPE). A terms of reference was quickly developed for the subcommittee. The HTF’s initial purpose included developing a strategy for identifying locations and pathways for temporary housing. This allowed the Health and Wellbeing subcommittee and the HTF to provide more focus on their particular areas of responsibility.

The SRC helped to manage issues but did not provide strategic risk management

Subcommittees regularly reported to the SRC throughout the flood response period. The SRC was able to manage issues with these programs as they arose, often by connecting relevant staff and providing a forum for these issues to be resolved across agencies. In this way, the SRC was able to manage issues, which aligns with its role in facilitating whole-of-government coordination.

Given that all relevant agencies were represented on the SRC, it was uniquely placed to provide strategic risk management across all aspects of the recovery effort including provision of accommodation and housing following the floods. This would fall within the SRC’s role of providing strategic direction in relation to disaster recovery. Strategic risk management involves addressing external risks, including those which may impact the government’s ability to achieve its objectives. The SRC did not undertake strategic risk management to proactively identify issues that could hinder the recovery effort, such as through developing risk registers and assigning mitigation strategies to agencies or specific individuals.

In regards to the flood temporary housing response, this may have included identifying and mitigating risks that could impact on the quantity of housing provided, risks to the overall flood recovery budget, and risks related to further flood events occurring that might hinder flood recovery. While the SRC did not consider this work during the flood response, Resilience NSW and the Reconstruction Authority both documented some whole-of-government risks to the delivery of the response to natural disasters as part of their enterprise risk management processes, including throughout 2022. However, this work was not undertaken specifically in relation to the unfolding flood events, but was instead done as part of the agency's regular review of its enterprise risks. Given that only one agency was involved in this risk identification, it was not a substitute for whole-of-government risk identification through the SRC.

The HTF did undertake some separate risk identification for the temporary housing response in the Northern Rivers, but not until October 2022. The HTF had been in operation since March 2022 without undertaking formal risk assessments to determine key risks to the provision of temporary housing that required mitigation. Some of the risks identified included expenditure on temporary housing exceeding its allocated budget, temporary housing sites failing to deliver agreed outcomes, and that there would be inappropriate or ineffective engagement with Aboriginal communities. This risk identification from the HTF was also reflected in Resilience NSW's and the Reconstruction Authority’s enterprise risk registers, where it is identified that there is a risk that the agencies do not effectively deliver on short and medium term housing.

The SRC provided oversight of the work of subcommittees

As noted above, one of the roles of the SRC is to oversee reconstruction and recovery efforts in disaster impacted areas. To fulfil this role of providing oversight, the SRC received updates on the activities of each subcommittee at each meeting.

In March 2022, each subcommittee developed a 100-Day Flood Action Plan that set out actions that would be completed in the first 30, 60 and 100 days. Each subcommittee was required to update its Flood Action Plan and report progress on implementation to the SRC every two weeks. The SRC received this regular reporting from each subcommittee, which included the status of each item, actions undertaken to date, and the next steps that each subcommittee was undertaking. This served to provide the SRC with oversight of the actions of each group to supplement the subcommittee updates with greater detail.

The quality of reporting from the HTF to the SRC reduced throughout August and September 2022. At this time the updates from the subcommittee included either only a verbal update or only statistical updates on the temporary housing response. This means that throughout this period, the SRC was providing only limited oversight of the temporary housing response. From October 2022, the HTF provided more detailed updates to the SRC, providing data on the temporary housing villages including the number of dwellings, estimated capacity and the status of each of the village sites (whether operational or estimated date of construction completion).

DCJ adapted its usual procedures to house a large number of people in emergency accommodation following the Northern Rivers flood event

The HCC, a branch within DCJ, is responsible for arranging emergency accommodation during a disaster, although this responsibility was not outlined in a specific emergency accommodation plan or procedure at the time of the flood events. Once a disaster is declared, the HCC is activated for a disaster welfare response. The team is required to estimate the number of people who will be displaced by the disaster and may seek emergency accommodation. The team is also required to contact local accommodation providers such as hotels, motels and caravan parks to determine vacancy information, as well as obtain information about the facilities such as wheelchair accessibility and pet-friendly rooms. The HCC team will then make direct contact with staff at evacuation centres and facilitate bookings based on the demand. A central internal database is utilised by the HCC, which enables them to see providers and book within the system.

In following these procedures, DCJ housed 788 people in the two weeks following the initial flood event by utilising the standard local accommodation providers. On 27 April 2022, 1,440 people were reported as staying at local accommodation providers as part of the emergency accommodation response. Exhibit 5 shows the number of people housed in emergency accommodation across the North Coast from March 2022 to early April 2023.

Governance structures continued to operate as previously established in response to the Central West flood event

The governance structures established in response to the 2019–20 bushfires and the flood event in the Northern Rivers mostly operated in the same capacity for the management of the Central West flood event. In October 2022, the meeting frequency for the SRC reduced to fortnightly, following the same structure with subcommittee updates discussed as part of the agenda. There was no increase in meeting frequency during or in the immediate aftermath of the response to the Central West flood event.

Resilience NSW continued to document whole-of-government risks to the delivery of the response to natural disasters during the response to the Central West flood event, and this work was continued by the Reconstruction Authority once established. Resilience NSW also continued to develop risk dashboard heatmaps each quarter, monitoring any changes in the residual risk rating of these risks, as well as outlining issues identified, and any new and emerging risks.

DCJ housed displaced persons in the Central West quickly, considering additional needs during the process

DCJ, through the HCC, advised that it followed its standard process outlined above for the provision of emergency accommodation during the Central West flood event. The evacuation order for Eugowra was made on 15 November 2022, and by 8 December 2022, DCJ had housed 93 people from the community in emergency accommodation. The HCC was able to utilise alternative accommodation such as rooms at Charles Sturt University to meet the increasing demand for emergency accommodation in the Central West.

Through the initial consultation process conducted with displaced persons at evacuation centres, the HCC was also able to consider their additional needs and meet these where possible. For example, companion animals were supported by Local Land Services and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals through the provision of boarding services. DCJ advised that local needs were also considered as part of the intake process. For example, displaced persons were accommodated as close to their hometown as possible. Those evacuated from Forbes were given priority for emergency accommodation in Forbes. This did impact evacuees from other towns. Ordinarily, those displaced in Eugowra would also be housed in Forbes, but due to limited accommodation options, they were evacuated to Orange instead. Other considerations made for displaced persons included level access and accessible rooms for those with disabilities, and baby care items, such as cots, where required.

The At-home Caravans program was implemented as immediate shelter for displaced persons awaiting pods on their property in the Central West

By 28 November 2022, Resilience NSW made the decision to activate the At-home Caravans program in the Central West, with applications from displaced persons being taken within a week after the flood event in Eugowra. Caravans were temporarily set up on private properties in Eugowra. Displaced persons are able to live in these caravans while waiting for a pod to be installed on their property. By 10 January 2023, 102 caravans had been delivered to the Central West and started to be located on private properties. At 30 May 2023, Resilience NSW had delivered 124 out of the 129 required caravans to properties. A plan was implemented to provide immediate shelter in the community through the caravans, organise medium-term housing in the form of pods, and support displaced persons to repair or rebuild their homes. Caravans were provided to households where properties required demolition, those that were damaged but reparable, and rental properties with owner’s consent.

Other options for immediate shelter were considered but not progressed. Placing caravans on site at showgrounds or caravan parks was considered, however a NSWPW assessment found that 95% of impacted homes could accommodate caravans on property. Caravans on property require less ongoing case management, site works and utilities. Private farm house rental accommodation was also considered, however extremely low availability of these in the area resulted in the decision to not progress this option.

Resilience NSW was able to meet the demand for housing in the Central West by placing temporary housing on people’s property

Resilience NSW conducted early analysis of potential temporary housing village sites in the aftermath of the floods in the Central West. However, after reviewing the situation in Eugowra and the relatively larger blocks, it was decided a more appropriate solution would be to place temporary pods on private property. Part of this decision was the impact a centralised village located in Eugowra would have on displaced persons from other affected towns. At 30 May 2023, 59 out of 100 pods had been installed on private properties. These pods replaced caravans initially installed on private properties, although at the time of the audit some disaster-affected persons were still living in caravans while they wait for pod installation on their property.

Resilience NSW was able to utilise the excess pods from the Northern Rivers to reduce the wait time for displaced persons to move into the pod from the caravan located on their property. Once their eligibility had been confirmed, the resident met with NSWPW and the builders contracted to install the pods. The resident confirmed where they would like the pod placed and the size needed. Applicants were then prioritised by Resilience NSW and pods installed in order of this prioritisation. NSWPW engaged the same third-party contractor used in the Northern Rivers construction to expedite the installation process.

Resilience NSW used measures to adapt the pods for suitable use in the Central West, as well as configuring them to meet mobility needs of residents. Cabonne Shire and Forbes Shire Councils required pods to be built at a height of 1.5 metres. The pods were therefore installed on scaffolding to raise their height. As the pods were designed and constructed for the Northern Rivers climate, insulation was installed on the base of the pods to ensure the inside temperature was appropriate for residents in the Central West. The raised height of the pods also impacted their accessibility, so the contractor was also engaged to install ramps instead of stairs where needed.

The first demobilisation of a pod occurred on 7 August 2023, after the resident’s home had been repaired and it was suitable for them to move back home. The Reconstruction Authority advised that as pods continue to be demobilised, they will be cleaned, any required repairs completed, and then moved onto the next property as needed. There was no long-term plan initially developed for the transition of tenants out of temporary housing, although the Reconstruction Authority has advised that the newly developed Temporary Housing Plan will include these considerations to inform processes at the end of the lease period. There has been consideration for returning the pods to the Northern Rivers once the work in the Central West is complete.

The Reconstruction Authority advised that due to the delays residents are facing in accessing trades and payment of insurance claims, the HTF is currently seeking the support of councils to extend the placement of pods beyond the two years that were initially planned.

There was no clear process in place to support displaced persons in emergency accommodation who were ineligible for temporary housing in the Central West

The WSFASP in place during the flood events did not outline a transition plan for displaced persons staying in emergency accommodation. Resilience NSW took over responsibility for the transition of displaced persons from emergency accommodation to temporary housing. It was not always possible to house rental tenants by placing a pod on the property they were occupying because they were unable to obtain landowner permission. It was necessary to find an alternative property to install these pods, usually on property owned by a family member. This was able to address most tenants’ issues.

It was unclear which agency was responsible for the support of renting households in the medium to long-term. The lack of a documented process for the provision of emergency accommodation created a gap in relation to the support for displaced persons. The WSFASP has since been updated to include provision for coordinated case management support to assist people in emergency accommodation with longer-term housing needs.

DCJ maintained a list of displaced persons who had been staying in emergency accommodation and were unable to exit without assistance. This list was provided to Resilience NSW weekly. Resilience NSW provided updates to DCJ on the status of those who were being transitioned into temporary housing, but no assistance was provided by Resilience NSW to those who were ineligible for temporary housing. DCJ was therefore required to provide case management to these people to assist in their transition to more stable housing.

Agencies learned and applied lessons from the Northern Rivers floods to the Central West flood event, but most have not formalised these for future consideration

Agencies involved in the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing learned key lessons from the Northern Rivers floods that could be applied in the Central West response. These lessons included the Reconstruction Authority rapidly standing up the At-home Caravans Program to provide immediate accommodation to displaced persons, and instigating a community reference group to provide feedback on the proposed housing response plan. These lessons learned were largely undocumented, with many staff being involved across both the Northern Rivers and Central West flood response, and able to directly apply lessons learned from their experience in the earlier response. It is good practice to formalise lessons learned to ensure that future responses may have access to contemporary information to learn from both positive and negative experiences in previous situations.

DCJ and Premier’s Department (PD) have not yet documented any lessons learned from their roles in the flood events. Some lessons were documented by Resilience NSW in April 2022 as part of a process to identify emerging insights. These lessons covered a broad range of activities, including findings relevant to the provision of temporary housing.

In June 2023, the Reconstruction Authority formally documented its own lessons learned from the provision of temporary housing. This includes identifying actions to avoid repeating some of the negative experiences, such as Aboriginal communities not being consulted at the appropriate time, and not having adequate program design processes in place for the temporary housing program. In addition, NSWPW has commissioned an evaluation of its work in the construction and provision of temporary housing, which includes a formal lessons learned component.

External reviews have also been conducted and have captured interim lessons learned, including the 2022 NSW Flood Inquiry and the ‘Response to major flooding across New South Wales in 2022’ Parliamentary Inquiry.

Agencies are in the process of evaluating the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing

Agencies have commenced the process of evaluating their role in the provision of emergency accommodation and temporary housing. DCJ advised that an external evaluation would commence shortly and that it was in the process of engaging a consultancy firm to conduct this. NSWPW has also commenced an external review of its provision of temporary housing. DPE and PD have not commenced a review, although PD has established a new unit for strategic communications during disasters in response to the agency's involvement in crisis communications during the flood events. This unit has been developed to deliver overarching whole-of-government messaging during disaster events.

Similarly, the Reconstruction Authority advised that an evaluation was planned for the provision of temporary housing. In addition, Resilience NSW commissioned an evaluation of the use of the Minderoo Foundation pods in response to the 2019–20 bushfires. This review reported in November 2022, though it had limited consideration of the role of the Minderoo Foundation pods as a source of temporary housing in the Northern Rivers. This report made 19 recommendations to the Reconstruction Authority and the Minderoo Foundation, and found that the Minderoo pods had largely been delivered in line with the original intended objectives.

There is no State-wide process in place to capture lessons learned from all agencies involved in recovery

Each year, the SEMC conducts a State-wide lessons learned exercise, incorporating learnings from all of the emergency events in the previous year. This exercise has commenced for the 2022 emergency events, however at the time of the audit it was in draft and not yet formally endorsed by the SEMC.

The agencies involved in the State lessons learned process are agencies with emergency response responsibilities. The findings largely relate to these response activities, with very few lessons learned relating to recovery. Only a limited number of agencies are involved in this activity, and the 2022 review did not incorporate the views of a number of agencies that were involved in the recovery phase of the Northern Rivers and Central West flood events.

While it is important that lessons are learned from the response phase of an emergency, it is equally important that State-wide lessons are learned from the recovery phase to ensure that appropriate State-wide changes can be made, or positive experiences can be continued. There is currently no process in place to capture these lessons learned from the recovery phase from all agencies involved in the recovery phase.

Appendix one – Responses from entities

Appendix two – About the audit

Appendix three – Performance auditing

 

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Parliamentary reference - Report number #389 - released 22 February 2024

Published

Actions for Planning and Environment 2023

Planning and Environment 2023

Planning
Environment
Industry
Asset valuation
Compliance
Financial reporting
Information technology
Infrastructure
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Risk
Shared services and collaboration

What this report is about

Results of the Planning and Environment portfolio financial statement audits for the year ended 30 June 2023.

The audit found

Unqualified audit opinions were issued for all completed Planning and Environment portfolio agencies. Seven audits are ongoing.

The Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT) did not comply with its obligations under the Government Sector Finance Act 2018 (GSF Act) to prepare and submit financial statements for audit.

The Department of Planning and Environment (the department) has not yet provided their assessment of the financial reporting requirements for the 579 Category 2 Statutory Land Managers (SLMs) for 2022–23.

One-hundred-and-nineteen Commons Trusts are non-compliant with the GSF Act as they have not submitted their financial statements for audit.

We issued unqualified opinions on the Water Administration Ministerial Corporation's 2020–21, 2021–22 and 2022–23 financial statements.

The number of monetary misstatements identified in our audits decreased from 59 in 2021–22 to 51 in 2022–23, however the gross value of misstatements increased.

The key audit issues were

The former Resilience NSW and NSW Reconstruction Authority (the Authority) re-assessed the accounting implications arising from contractual agreements relating to temporary housing assets associated with the Northern Rivers Temporary Homes Program. This resulted in adjustments to recognise the associated assets and liabilities.

We continue to identify significant deficiencies in NSW Crown land information records.

The department has not been effective in addressing the differing practices for the financial reporting of rural firefighting equipment vested to councils under section 119 (2) of the Rural Fires Act 1997.

The number of findings across the portfolio reported to management increased from 132 in 2021–22 to 140 in 2022–23. Thirty per cent of issues were repeated from the prior year.

Seven high-risk issues were identified. These related to the findings outlined above, deficiencies in quality reviews of asset valuations, internal control processes and IT general controls.

The audit recommended

Recommendations were made to the department and portfolio agencies to address these deficiencies.

This report provides Parliament and other users of the Planning and Environment portfolio of agencies’ financial statements with the results of our audits, analysis, conclusions and recommendations in the following areas:

  • financial reporting
  • audit observations.

Financial reporting is an important element of good governance. Confidence and transparency in public sector decision-making are enhanced when financial reporting is accurate and timely.

This chapter outlines our audit observations related to the financial reporting of agencies in the Planning and Environment portfolio of agencies (the portfolio) for 2023.

Section highlights

  • Unqualified audit opinions were issued on all completed 30 June 2023 financial statements audits of portfolio agencies. Seven audits are ongoing.
  • We have been unable to commence audits of the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT). NSW Treasury's position remains that the Catholic CMCT is a controlled entity of the State for financial reporting purposes. This means CMCT is a Government Sector Finance (GSF) agency and is obliged under Section 7.6 of the Government Sector Finance Act 2018 (GSF Act) to prepare financial statements and submit them to the Auditor-General for audit. To date, CMCT has not met its statutory obligations under the GSF Act.
  • The Department of Planning and Environment has not yet provided their assessment against the reporting exemption requirements in the Government Sector Finance Regulation 2018 (GSF Regulation) for the estimated 579 Category 2 Statutory Land Managers (SLMs) or 119 Commons Trusts for 2022–23 and no Category 2 SLM or Commons Trust has submitted its 2022–23

    financial statements for audit. Consequently, the lack of compliance with reporting requirements by these 698 agencies presents a challenge to obtaining reliable financial data for these agencies for the purposes of consolidation to the Total State Sector Accounts.

  • The audits of the Water Administration Ministerial Corporation's (WAMC) financial statements for the years ended 30 June 2021 and 30 June 2022 were completed in June 2023 and unqualified audit opinions issued. The 30 June 2023 audit was completed and an unqualified audit opinion was issued on 12 October 2023.
  • The number of reported corrected misstatements decreased from 46 in 2021–22 to 36, however the gross value of misstatements increased from $73 million in 2021–22 to $491.8 million in 2022–23.
  • Portfolio agencies met the statutory deadline for submitting their 2022–23 early close financial statements and other mandatory procedures.
  • A change to the NSW paid parental leave scheme, effective October 2023, created a new legal obligation that needed to be recognised by impacted government agencies. Impact to the agencies' financial statements were not material.

 

Appropriate financial controls help ensure the efficient and effective use of resources and administration of agency policies. They are essential for quality and timely decision-making.

This chapter outlines our observations and insights from our financial statement audits of agencies in the portfolio.

Section highlights 

  • The number of findings across the portfolio reported to management increased from 132 in 2021–22 to 140 in 2022–23 and 30% were repeat issues (34% in 2021–22).
  • The 2022–23 audits identified seven high-risk and 76 moderate risk issues across the portfolio. Four of the high-risk issues were repeat issues, one was a repeat issue with the risk rating reassessed to high-risk in the current year and two were new findings in 2022–23.
  • The former Resilience NSW and NSW Reconstruction Authority had previously assessed that they did not control the temporary housing assets associated with the administration of the Northern Rivers Temporary Homes Program, under relevant accounting standards. A re-assessment of the agreements was made subsequent to the submission of the Authority’s 2022–23 financial statements for audit, which determined that the Authority was the appropriate NSW Government agency to recognise these assets and associated liabilities not previously recognised by the Authority or the former Resilience NSW.
  • There continues to be significant deficiencies in Crown land records. The department should continue to implement their data strategy and action plan to ensure the Crown land database is complete and accurate.
  • Since 2017, the Audit Office has recommended that the department, through OLG should address the differing practices for the financial reporting of rural firefighting equipment vested to councils under section 119 (2) of the Rural Fires Act 1997. The department has not been effective in resolving this issue. In 2023, twenty-six of 108 completed audits of councils received qualified audit opinions on their 2023 financial statements (43 of 146 completed audits in 2022). Six councils had their qualifications for not recognising vested rural firefighting equipment removed in 2022–23.

 

Appendix one – Misstatements in financial statements submitted for audit

Appendix two – Early close procedures 

Appendix three – Timeliness of financial reporting 

Appendix four – Financial data

 

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

Published

Actions for Regional NSW 2023

Regional NSW 2023

Industry
Environment
Planning
Whole of Government
Asset valuation
Compliance
Cyber security
Financial reporting
Fraud
Information technology
Infrastructure
Procurement
Regulation
Risk
Service delivery
Shared services and collaboration

What this report is about

Results of the Regional NSW financial statements audits for the year ended 30 June 2023.

What we found

Unqualified audit opinions were issued on all completed audits in the Regional NSW portfolio agencies.

The number of monetary misstatements identified in our audits increased from 28 in 2021–22 to 30 in 2022–23.

What the key issues were

Effective 1 July 2023, staff employed in the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation Division of the Department of Regional NSW transferred to the NSW Reconstruction Authority Staff Agency.

The Regional NSW portfolio agencies were migrated into a new government wide enterprise resourcing planning system.

The total number of audit management letter findings across the portfolio of agencies decreased from 36 to 23.

A high risk matter was raised for the NSW Food Authority to improve the internal controls in the information technology environment including monitoring and managing privilege user access.

What we recommended

Local Land Services should prioritise completing all mandatory early close procedures.

Portfolio agencies should:

  • ensure any changes to employee entitlements are assessed for their potential financial statements impact under the relevant Australian Accounting Standards
  • prioritise and address internal control deficiencies identified in audit management letters.

This report provides Parliament and other users of the Regional NSW portfolio of agencies financial statements with the results of our audits, analysis, conclusions and recommendations in the following areas:

  • financial reporting
  • audit observations.

Financial reporting is an important element of good governance. Confidence and transparency in public sector decision-making are enhanced when financial reporting is accurate and timely.

This chapter outlines our audit observations related to the financial reporting of agencies in the Regional NSW portfolio of agencies (the portfolio) for 2023.

Section highlights

  • Unqualified audit opinions were issued on all completed 30 June 2023 financial statements audits of the portfolio agencies. Two audits are ongoing.
  • The total number of errors (including corrected and uncorrected) in the financial statements increased compared to the prior year.
  • Portfolio agencies met the statutory deadline for submitting their 2022–23 early close financial statements and other mandatory procedures.
  • Portfolio agencies continue to provide financial assistance to communities affected by natural disasters.
  • A change to the NSW paid parental leave scheme, effective October 2023, created a new legal obligation that needed to be recognised by impacted government agencies. Impact to the agencies' financial statements were not material. 

 

Appropriate financial controls help ensure the efficient and effective use of resources and administration of agency policies. They are essential for quality and timely decision-making.

This chapter outlines our observations and insights from our financial statement audits of agencies in the Regional NSW portfolio.

Section highlights

  • The 2022–23 audits identified one high risk and nine moderate risk issues across the portfolio. Of these, one was a moderate risk repeat issue.
  • The total number of findings decreased from 36 to 23 which mainly related to deficiencies in internal controls.
  • The high risk matter relates to the monitoring and managing of privilege user access at NSW Food Authority. 

 

Appendix one – Misstatements in financial statements submitted for audit

Appendix two – Early close procedures

Appendix three – Timeliness of financial reporting

Appendix four – Financial data

 

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

Planned

Actions for Cemeteries and crematoria

Cemeteries and crematoria

Planning

In February 2021, the NSW Government tabled the report of a statutory review of the Cemeteries and Crematoria Act 2013. The report titled 'The 11th hour solving Sydney's cemetery crisis' found that Greater Sydney is running out of burial space, posing significant financial risk to the State’s finances with unfunded liabilities of the Crown sector in excess of $300 million and required capital for new cemeteries of approximately $200–300 million. As part of a response to these risks, this report recommended the consolidation of Crown Cemetery Land Managers into a new body. The NSW Government has adopted a two-operator model and formed Metropolitan Memorial Parks on 1 July 2023 to amalgamate three Crown Cemetery Land Managers into a new body.

An audit of this topic could look at how effectively the NSW Government is planning and implementing a response to the issues set out in this report. The audit may also consider the operations of Metropolitan Memorial Parks.

Published

Actions for State heritage assets

State heritage assets

Environment
Local Government
Planning
Compliance
Management and administration
Regulation
Risk

What the report is about

This audit assessed how effectively the Department of Planning and Environment (Heritage NSW) is overseeing and administering heritage assets of state significance.

Heritage that is rare, exceptional or outstanding to New South Wales may be listed on the State Heritage Register under the Heritage Act 1977. This provides assets with legal recognition and protection. Places, buildings, works, relics, objects and precincts can be listed, whether in public or private ownership.

Heritage NSW has administrative functions and regulatory powers, including under delegation from the Heritage Council of NSW, relevant to the listing, conservation and adaptive re-use of heritage assets of state significance.

In summary, the audit assessed whether Heritage NSW:

  • is effectively administering relevant advice and decisions
  • is effectively supporting and overseeing assets
  • has established clear strategic priorities and can demonstrate preparedness to implement these.

What we found

Heritage NSW does not have adequate oversight of state significant heritage assets, presenting risks to its ability to promote the objects of the Heritage Act.

Information gaps and weaknesses in quality assurance processes limit its capacity to effectively regulate activities affecting assets listed on the State Heritage Register.

Heritage NSW has adopted a focus on customer service and recently improved its timeliness in providing advice and making decisions about activities affecting listed assets. But Heritage NSW has not demonstrated how its customer-focused priorities will address known risks to its core regulatory responsibilities.

Listed assets owned by government entities are often of high heritage value. Heritage NSW could do more to promote effective heritage management among these entities.

What we recommended

The report made eight recommendations to Heritage NSW, focusing on:

  • improving quality assurance over advice and decisions
  • improving staff guidance and training
  • defining and maintaining data in the State Heritage Register
  • clarifying its regulatory intent and approach
  • sector engagement and interagency capability to support heritage outcomes.

The Heritage Act 1977 (the Heritage Act) and accompanying regulation provide the legal framework for the identification, conservation and adaptive re-use of heritage assets in New South Wales.

The Department of Planning and Environment (Heritage NSW) has responsibility for policy, legislative and program functions for state heritage matters, including supporting the Minister for Heritage to administer the Heritage Act.

Heritage assets that are rare, exceptional or outstanding beyond a local area or region may be listed on the State Heritage Register under the Heritage Act. These assets include places, buildings, works, relics, moveable objects and precincts, and assets that have significance to Aboriginal communities in New South Wales. Assets nominated for and listed on the State Heritage Register ('listed assets') may be owned privately or publicly, including by local councils and state government entities.

The Heritage Act establishes the Heritage Council of NSW (the Heritage Council) to undertake a range of functions in line with its objectives. Heritage NSW provides administrative support to the Heritage Council, for example providing advice on assets that have been nominated for listing on the State Heritage Register. Many of Heritage NSW’s core activities also relate to exercising functions and powers under delegation from the Heritage Council. These include making administrative decisions about works affecting listed assets, and exercising powers to regulate asset owners’ compliance with requirements under the Heritage Act.

Heritage NSW states that heritage:

…gives us a sense of our history and provides meaningful insights into how earlier generations lived and developed. It also enriches our lives and helps us to understand who we are.  

According to Heritage NSW, an effective heritage system will facilitate the community in harnessing the cultural and economic value of heritage.

The objective of this audit was to assess how effectively the Department of Planning and Environment (Heritage NSW) is overseeing and administering heritage assets of state significance.

For this audit, ‘heritage assets of state significance’ refers to items (including a place, building, work, relic, moveable object or precinct) listed on the State Heritage Register ('listed assets'), and those which have been nominated for listing.

Conclusion

The Department of Planning and Environment (Heritage NSW) does not have adequate oversight of state significant heritage assets. Information gaps and weaknesses in certain assurance processes limit its capacity to effectively regulate activities affecting assets listed on the State Heritage Register. These factors also constrain its ability to effectively support voluntary compliance and promote the objects of the Heritage Act, which include encouraging conservation and adaptive re-use.
Heritage NSW has adopted a focus on customer service and recently improved the timeliness of its advice and decisions on activities affecting listed assets. But Heritage NSW has not demonstrated how its customer service priorities will address known risks to its regulatory responsibilities. It could also do more to enable and promote effective heritage management among state government entities that own listed assets.

The information that Heritage NSW maintains about assets listed on the State Heritage Register ('listed assets') is insufficient for its regulatory and owner engagement purposes. Data quality and completeness issues have arisen since the register was established in 1999. But Heritage NSW's progress to address important gaps in the register, and its other information systems, has been limited in recent years. These gaps limit Heritage NSW’s capacity to detect compliance breaches early and implement risk-based regulatory responses, and to strategically target its owner engagement activities to promote conservation and re-use.

Heritage NSW makes decisions on applications for works on listed assets, requiring technical skills and professional judgement. But Heritage NSW does not provide its staff with adequate guidance to ensure that consistent approaches are used, and it lacks sufficient quality assurance processes. There are similar weaknesses in Heritage NSW's oversight of decisions on applications that are delegated to other government entities.

Heritage NSW has prioritised the implementation of customer service-focused activities, policies, and programs to reduce regulatory burdens on asset owners since 2017. For example, Heritage NSW has refreshed its website, introduced new information management systems, and implemented new regulation for the self-assessment of exemptions for minor works. However, Heritage NSW has not taken steps to mitigate oversight and quality risks introduced with the reduced regulatory burdens. Heritage NSW has made some, but to date insufficient, progress on a key project to update its publications. These documents (over 150 publications) are intended to play an important role in promoting voluntary compliance and supporting heritage outcomes. Heritage NSW started a new project to update relevant publications in April 2023.

Heritage NSW has recently implemented processes to improve its efficiency, such as screening new nominations for listing on the State Heritage Register. Heritage NSW has also reported improvements in the time it takes to decide on applications for works affecting listed assets. In the third quarter of 2022–23, 87% of decisions were made within the statutory timeframes. This compares to 48% in 2021–22. Heritage NSW has similarly improved how quickly it provides heritage advice on major projects, with 90% of advice reported as delivered on time in the third quarter of 2022–23, compared to 44% in 2020–21.

Assets owned by state government entities comprise a large proportion of State Heritage Register listings. These assets are often of high heritage value or situated within large and complex precincts or portfolios. But Heritage NSW does not implement targeted capability building activities to support good practice heritage management among state government entities and to promote compliance with their obligations under the Heritage Act.

The expected interaction between Heritage NSW's strategic plans and activities, and the priorities of the Heritage Council of NSW, is unclear. Actions to clarify the relevant governance arrangements have also been slow following a review in 2020 but this work re-commenced in late 2022.

Heritage NSW has been progressing work to draft reforms to the Heritage Act. This follows recommendations made in a 2021 Upper House Inquiry into the Heritage Act. To build preparedness for future reforms, Heritage NSW will need to do more to address the risks and opportunities identified in this audit report. In particular, it will need to ensure it has sufficient information and capacity to implement a risk-based regulatory approach; clear and effective governance arrangements with the Heritage Council of NSW; and enhanced engagement with government entities to promote the conservation and adaptive re-use of listed assets in public ownership.

This chapter assesses the effectiveness of Heritage NSW's oversight of state heritage assets, including its visibility of listed assets, and its oversight of regulatory decision-making. It also assesses Heritage NSW's activities to engage with owners to meet their obligations under the Heritage Act and to support heritage outcomes.

This chapter assesses the timeliness of Heritage NSW’s provision of advice, recommendations, and decisions on heritage issues to support heritage management outcomes with respect to listed assets.

This chapter assesses whether the Department of Planning and Environment (Heritage NSW) has established clear strategic priorities to effectively oversee and administer activities related to listed assets, and its preparedness to implement reforms. It also assesses the adequacy of planning activities and governance arrangements to support the achievement of strategic directions.

Appendix one – Response from agency

Appendix two – About the audit

Appendix three – Performance auditing

 

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

 

Parliamentary reference - Report number #384 - released 27 June 2023

Published

Actions for Special report into the financial affairs of the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust

Special report into the financial affairs of the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust

Planning
Financial reporting

The Auditor‑General for New South Wales, Margaret Crawford PSM, has tabled a special report into the financial affairs of the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust.

Read the PDF version of the report

Published

Actions for Natural disasters

Natural disasters

Community Services
Environment
Finance
Local Government
Planning
Transport
Treasury
Whole of Government
Asset valuation
Compliance
Financial reporting
Infrastructure
Regulation
Risk
Service delivery

What this report is about

This report draws together the financial impact of natural disasters on agencies integral to the response and impact of natural disasters during 2021–22.

What we found

Over the 2021–22 financial year $1.4 billion from a budget of $1.9 billion was spent by the NSW Government in response to natural disasters.

Total expenses were less than the budget due to underspend in the following areas:

  • clean-up assistance, including council grants
  • anticipated temporary accommodation support
  • payments relating to the Northern Rivers Business Support scheme for small businesses.

Natural disaster events damaged council assets such as roads, bridges, waste collection centres and other facilities used to provide essential services. Additional staff, contractors and experts were engaged to restore and repair damaged assets and minimise disruption to service delivery.

At 30 June 2022, the estimated damage to council infrastructure assets totalled $349 million.

Over the first half of the 2022–23 financial year, councils experienced further damage to infrastructure assets due to natural disasters. NSW Government spending on natural disasters continued with a further $1.1 billion spent over this period.

Thirty-six councils did not identify climate change or natural disaster as a strategic risk despite 22 of these having at least one natural disaster during 2021–22.

Section highlights

  • $1.4 billion from a budget of $1.9 billion was spent by the NSW Government in response to natural disasters during 2021–22.
  • Budget underspent for temporary housing and small business support as lower than expected need.

Section highlights

  • 83 local council areas were impacted by natural disasters during 2021–22, with 58 being impacted by more than one type of natural disaster.
  • $349 million damage to council infrastructure assets at 30 June 2022.

 

Published

Actions for Regulation and monitoring of local government

Regulation and monitoring of local government

Planning
Whole of Government
Environment
Local Government
Compliance
Regulation
Risk

What the report is about

The Office of Local Government (OLG) in the Department of Planning and Environment is responsible for strengthening the local government sector, including through its regulatory functions.

This audit assessed whether the OLG is effectively monitoring and regulating the sector under the Local Government Act 1993. The audit covered:

  • the effectiveness of departmental arrangements for the OLG to undertake its regulatory functions
  • whether the OLG has effective mechanisms to monitor and respond to risks and issues relating to council compliance and performance.

What we found

The OLG does not conduct effective, proactive monitoring to enable timely risk-based responses to council performance and compliance issues.

The OLG has not clearly defined and communicated its regulatory role to ensure that its priorities are well understood.

The OLG does not routinely review the results of its regulatory activities to improve its approaches.

The department lacks an adequate framework to define, measure and report on the OLG's performance, limiting transparency and its accountability.

The OLG's new strategic plan presents an opportunity for the OLG to better define, communicate, and deliver on its regulatory objectives.

What we recommended

The OLG should:

  • publish a tool to support councils to self-assess risks and report on their performance and compliance
  • ensure its council engagement strategy is consistent with its regulatory approach
  • report each year on its regulatory activities and performance
  • publish a calendar of its key sector support and monitoring activities
  • enhance processes for internally tracking operational activities
  • develop and maintain a data management framework
  • review and update frameworks and procedures for regulatory responses.

 

The Local Government Act 1993 (the LG Act) provides the legal framework for the system of local government in New South Wales. The LG Act describes the functions of councils, county councils and joint organisations which should be exercised consistent with the guiding principles and requirements of the LG Act. Councils also have functions and responsibilities under other Acts.

There are 128 local councils, nine county councils and 13 joint organisations of councils in the New South Wales local government sector. Each council is unique in size and location, owns and manages assets, and delivers services for their communities. According to 2021–22 data provided by the Department of Planning and Environment (the department), local councils managed $175.2 billion in infrastructure, property plant and equipment, held $16.8 billion of cash and investments, collected $7.8 billion in rates and charges and entered into $3.7 billion of borrowings. Councils' decision-making responsibilities directly impact the communities they serve, including responsibilities relevant to financial management, economic development, environmental sustainability and community wellbeing.

Under the LG Act, each elected council is accountable to the community they serve. In addition to Auditor-General reports, issues relating to council performance and compliance have been identified in public inquiries commissioned by the Minister for Local Government and investigations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, NSW Ombudsman and Office of Local Government (OLG). Challenges and opportunities related to the operations and sustainability of the local government sector have also been reported by the sector and identified in reports by NSW government agencies such as the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal.

The department is the primary state government agency with responsibility for policy, legislative, regulatory and program functions for local government matters. The Office of Local Government (OLG) is a business unit within the department that advises the Minister for Local Government and exercises delegated functions of the Secretary of the Department of Planning and Environment under the LG Act.

Key departmental planning documents state that the OLG is responsible for strengthening the sustainability, performance, integrity, transparency and accountability of the local government sector. As the state regulator of the local government sector, the OLG aims to promote voluntary compliance, build councils' capacity for high performance, and intervene only when 'warranted and appropriate'. Relevant regulatory activities include issuing guidelines, investigating councils and councillors, and supporting the Minister for Local Government's discretionary intervention powers. The OLG's other functions include developing policy, administering grants and programs, supporting local government election processes, and issuing certain approvals.

The objective of this audit was to assess whether the OLG is effectively monitoring and regulating the local government sector under the LG Act. The assessment included:

  • the effectiveness of departmental arrangements for the OLG to undertake its regulatory functions
  • whether the OLG has effective mechanisms to monitor and respond to risks and issues relating to council compliance and performance.

This report focuses on the OLG’s activities relevant to powers under Chapter 13 of the LG Act, and related regulatory activities, such as monitoring risks, issuing guidance and engaging with councils. It also examines strategic and operational planning for these activities in the context of the OLG's other activities, and departmental arrangements to oversee and enable the OLG's regulatory effectiveness.

Other OLG activities were not in scope of the audit but are commented on in this report where contextually relevant. This includes the OLG's responsibilities under the LG Act with respect to councillor misconduct, and the 2022 review of the councillor misconduct framework commissioned by the former Minister for Local Government.

Conclusion

The Office of Local Government (OLG) in the Department of Planning and Environment (the department) does not conduct effective, proactive monitoring to enable timely risk-based responses to council performance and compliance issues. Council performance and compliance varies and a range of issues continue across the local government sector – some significant – that can impact on councils' operations and sustainability.

The department recognises that an effective and efficient sector is 'crucial to the economic and social wellbeing of communities across the State,' but the OLG does not routinely review the results of its regulatory activities to improve its approaches. The OLG has also not clearly defined and communicated its regulatory role to ensure that its priorities are well understood.

Inadequate performance measurement and reporting on its regulatory activities is a significant transparency and accountability issue, and the OLG cannot demonstrate that it is effectively regulating the local government sector.

The department lacks an adequate framework to define, measure and report on the OLG's performance as the state regulator of the sector under the Local Government Act 1993 (the LG Act). The OLG's various council engagement activities are not well structured and coordinated towards delivering on a clearly defined regulatory role and its regulatory priorities are not well understood. In 2022, the OLG identified, in its new strategic plan, that there is a need for it to define its role in the sector. It would be expected that a clearly defined role already underpins its aim to 'strike the right mix of monitoring, intervention, capability improvement and engagement activities'.

The OLG collects various sources of information about council compliance and performance but its systems and processes do not enable structured, proactive sector monitoring to enable timely, risk-based responses. Ineffective sector monitoring is a particular issue in the context of compliance, financial management and governance risks that have been identified in inquiries and reviews by other government agencies including integrity bodies and reported by the sector. Audit Office data for 2021–22 shows that 62 councils did not have or regularly update key corporate governance policies, and 63 do not have basic controls to manage cyber security risks. Further, 31 councils or joint organisations did not meet the statutory requirement to have an audit, risk and improvement committee by 30 June 2022.1

Overall, the OLG has made limited progress on projects that have been identified since 2019 to improve its sector monitoring, such as updating its performance measurement framework for councils. These factors limit its capacity to identify and act on issues early. In early 2023, the OLG started to implement a new council risk assessment tool.

The OLG's two main frameworks to guide its sector improvement and intervention activities were last updated in 2014 and 2017. The OLG considered relevant statutory criteria when advising the Minister on the use of powers to issue performance improvement and suspension orders under the LG Act. But the OLG lacks complete and approved procedures to guide staff when preparing advice and recommendations related to interventions, and other response options. This creates risks to the consistency and transparency of relevant processes.

The department and the OLG have identified that resourcing issues present a risk to the OLG's regulatory functions. Projects since 2021 to review the OLG's budget did not progress. The OLG does not routinely review the costs or evaluate the effectiveness of its regulatory activities.

The OLG's 2022–2026 strategic plan sets out a vision to be, 'A trusted regulator and capability builder enabling councils to better serve their communities'. Implementing the strategic plan presents an opportunity for the OLG to better define, communicate, and deliver on its regulatory objectives towards strengthening the sector. The OLG advises that a delivery plan and performance indicators for its new strategy are being developed, alongside work resulting from the 2022 review of the councillor misconduct framework.

 


1 This data has been sourced through the Audit Office's financial audits of councils. The Local Government 2022 report, which compiles results from the local government sector financial statement audits for the year ended 30 June 2022, will include this and additional data, and related information. This report is expected to be tabled in June 2023.

This chapter considers the effectiveness of departmental arrangements for the OLG to undertake its regulatory functions.

This chapter assesses whether the OLG has effective mechanisms to monitor and respond to risks and issues relating to council compliance and performance.

The OLG’s 2017 Improvement and Intervention Framework is intended to guide appropriate responses to council compliance or performance risks and issues. The publicly available framework states that generally, the OLG will encourage councils to meet their obligations before a more formal intervention will be considered. It also states that any intervention or improvement response will be proportionate to the circumstances.

Appendix one – Response from agency

Appendix two – Statutory powers relevant to council accountability under the Local Government Act

Appendix three – About the audit

Appendix four – Performance auditing

 

Copyright notice

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

 

Parliamentary reference - Report number #380 - released 23 May 2023

Published

Actions for Planning and managing bushfire equipment

Planning and managing bushfire equipment

Community Services
Justice
Planning
Environment
Local Government
Asset valuation
Compliance
Financial reporting
Information technology
Infrastructure
Internal controls and governance
Management and administration
Procurement
Regulation
Risk
Shared services and collaboration
Workforce and capability

What the report is about

This audit assessed the effectiveness of the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and local councils in planning and managing equipment for bushfire prevention, mitigation, and suppression.

What we found

The RFS has focused its fleet development activity on modernising and improving the safety of its firefighting fleet, and on the purchase of new firefighting aircraft.

There is limited evidence that the RFS has undertaken strategic fleet planning or assessment of the capability of the firefighting fleet to respond to current bushfire events or emerging fire risks.

The RFS does not have an overarching strategy to guide its planning, procurement, or distribution of the firefighting fleet.

The RFS does not have effective oversight of fleet maintenance activity across the State, and is not ensuring the accuracy of District Service Agreements with local councils, where maintenance responsibilities are described.

What we recommended

  1. Develop a fleet enhancement framework and strategy that is informed by an assessment of current fleet capability, and research into appropriate technologies to respond to emerging fire risks.
  2. Develop performance measures to assess the performance and capabilities of the fleet in each RFS District by recording and publicly reporting on fire response times, fire response outcomes, and completions of fire hazard reduction works.
  3. Report annually on fleet allocations to RFS Districts, and identify the ways in which fleet resources align with district-level fire risks.
  4. Develop a strategy to ensure that local brigade volunteers are adequate in numbers and appropriately trained to operate fleet appliances in RFS Districts where they are required.
  5. Establish a fleet maintenance framework to ensure regular update of District Service Agreements with local councils.
  6. Review and improve processes for timely recording of fleet asset movements, locations, and maintenance status.

This audit assessed how effectively the NSW Rural Fire Service (the RFS) plans and manages the firefighting equipment needed to prevent, mitigate, and suppress bushfires. This audit also examined the role of local councils in managing bushfire equipment fleet assets. Local councils have vested legal ownership of the majority of the land-based firefighting fleet, including a range of legislated responsibilities to carry out fleet maintenance and repairs. The RFS has responsibilities to plan and purchase firefighting fleet assets, and ensure they are ready for use in response to fires and other emergencies.

This report describes the challenges in planning and managing the firefighting fleet, including a confusion of roles and responsibilities between the RFS and local councils in relation to managing certain land-based rural firefighting fleet – a point that has been made in our Local Government financial audits over several years. This role confusion is further demonstrated in the responses of the RFS and local councils to this audit report – included at Appendix one.

The lack of cohesion in roles and responsibilities for managing rural firefighting vehicles increases the risk that these firefighting assets are not properly maintained and managed, and introduces a risk that this could affect their readiness to be mobilised when needed.

While the audit findings and recommendations address some of the operational and organisational inefficiencies in relation to rural firefighting equipment management, they do not question the legislative arrangements that govern them. This is a matter for the NSW Government to consider in ensuring the fleet arrangements are fit for purpose, and are clearly understood by the relevant agencies.

The NSW Rural Fire Service (hereafter the RFS) is the lead combat agency for bushfires in New South Wales, and has the power to take charge of bushfire prevention and response operations anywhere in the State. The RFS has responsibilities to prevent, mitigate and suppress bushfires across 95% of the State, predominantly in the non-metropolitan areas of New South Wales. Fire and Rescue NSW is responsible for fire response activity in the cities and large townships that make up the remaining five per cent of the State.

The RFS bushfire fleet is an integral part of the agency's overall bushfire risk management. The RFS also uses this fleet to respond to other emergencies such as floods and storms, motor vehicle accidents, and structural fires. Fleet planning and management is one of a number of activities that is necessary for fire mitigation and suppression.

The Rural Fires Act 1997 (Rural Fires Act) imposes obligations on all landowners and land managers to prevent the occurrence of bushfires and reduce the risk of bushfires from spreading. Local councils have fire prevention responsibilities within their local government areas, principally to reduce fire hazards near council owned or managed assets, and minor roads.

The RFS is led by a Commissioner and is comprised of both paid employees and volunteer rural firefighters. Its functions are prescribed in the Rural Fires Act and related legislation such as the State Emergency Rescue Management Act 1989. The RFS functions are also described in Bush Fire Risk Management Plans, the State Emergency Management Plan, District Service Agreements, and RFS procedural documents. Some of the core responsibilities of the RFS include:

  • preventing, mitigating, and suppressing fires across New South Wales
  • recruiting and managing volunteer firefighters in rural fire brigades
  • purchasing and allocating firefighting fleet assets to local councils
  • establishing District Service Agreements with local councils to give the RFS permissions to use the fleet assets that are vested with local councils
  • carrying out fleet maintenance and repairs when authorised to do so by local councils
  • inspecting the firefighting fleet
  • supporting land managers and private property owners with fire prevention activity.

In order to carry out its legislated firefighting functions, the RFS relies on land-based vehicles, marine craft, and aircraft. These different firefighting appliance types are referred to in this report as the firefighting fleet or fleet assets.

RFS records show that in 2021 there were 6,345 firefighting fleet assets across NSW. Most of the land-based appliances commonly associated with firefighting, such as water pumpers and water tankers, are purchased by the RFS and vested with local councils under the Rural Fires Act. The vesting of firefighting assets with local councils means that the assets are legally owned by the council for which the asset has been purchased. The RFS is able to use the firefighting assets through District Service Agreements with local councils or groups of councils.

In addition to the land-based firefighting fleet, the RFS owns a fleet of aircraft with capabilities for fire mitigation, suppression, and reconnaissance during fire events. The RFS hires a fleet of different appliances to assist with fire prevention and hazard reduction works. These include aircraft for firefighting and fire reconnaissance, and heavy plant equipment such as graders and bulldozers for hazard reduction. Hazard reduction works include the clearance of bush and grasslands around major roads and protected assets, and the creation and maintenance of fire trails and fire corridors to assist with fire response activity.

The RFS is organised into 44 RFS Districts and seven Area Commands. The RFS relies on volunteer firefighters to assist in carrying out most of its firefighting functions. These functions may include the operation of the fleet during fire response activities and training exercises, and the routine inspection of the fleet to ensure it is maintained according to fleet service standards. Volunteer fleet inspections are supervised by the RFS Fire Control Officer.

In 2021 there were approximately 73,000 volunteers located in 1,993 rural fire brigades across the State, making the RFS the largest volunteer fire emergency service in Australia. In addition to brigade volunteers, the RFS has approximately 1,100 salaried staff who occupy leadership and administrative roles at RFS headquarters and in the 44 RFS Districts.

Local councils have legislative responsibilities relating to bushfire planning and management. Some of the core responsibilities of local councils include:

  • establishing and equipping rural fire brigades
  • contributing to the Rural Fire Fighting Fund
  • vested ownership of land-based rural firefighting equipment
  • carrying out firefighting fleet maintenance and repairs
  • conducting bushfire prevention and hazard reduction activity.

The objective of this audit was to assess the effectiveness of the RFS and local councils in planning and managing equipment for bushfire prevention, mitigation, and suppression. From the period of 2017 to 2022 inclusive, we addressed the audit objective by examining whether the NSW RFS and local councils effectively:

  • plan for current and future bushfire fleet requirements
  • manage and maintain the fleet required to prevent, mitigate, and suppress bushfires in NSW.

This audit did not assess:

  • the operational effectiveness of the RFS bushfire response
  • the effectiveness of personal protective equipment and clothing
  • the process of vesting of rural firefighting equipment with local councils
  • activities of any other statutory authorities responsible for managing bushfires in NSW.

As the lead combat agency for the bushfire response in NSW, the RFS has primary responsibility for bushfire prevention, mitigation, and suppression.

Three local councils were selected as case studies for this audit, Hawkesbury City Council, Wagga Wagga City Council and Uralla Shire Council. These case studies highlight the ways in which the RFS and local councils collaborate and communicate in rural fire districts.

Conclusion

The RFS has focused its fleet development activity on modernising and improving the safety of its land-based firefighting fleet, and on the purchase of new firefighting aircraft

The RFS has reduced the average age of the firefighting fleet from approximately 21 years in 2017, to approximately 16 years in 2022. The RFS has also enhanced the aerial fleet with the addition of six new aircraft to add to the existing three aircraft.

Recommendations from inquiries into the 2019–20 bushfires have driven significant levels of fleet improvement activity, mainly focused on the addition of safety features to existing fleet appliances. The RFS has dedicated most of its efforts to purchasing and refurbishing firefighting appliances of the same type and in the same volumes year on year.

However, the RFS is unable to demonstrate how the composition, size, or the locations of the NSW firefighting fleet is linked to current fire prevention, mitigation, and suppression requirements, or future fire risks.

There is limited evidence that the RFS has undertaken strategic fleet planning or assessment of the capability of the firefighting fleet to respond to current bushfire events or emerging fire risks

The RFS has not established a methodology to assess the composition or volumes of the firefighting fleet against fire activity and fire risks in the 44 NSW Rural Fire Districts. The RFS has not developed performance measures or targets to assess or report on fire response times in each of its districts, nor has it developed measures to assess the effectiveness of responses according to fire sizes and fire types. Similarly, the RFS has limited performance measures to assess fire prevention activity, or to assess fuel load reduction works, so it is not possible to assess whether its fleet capabilities are fit for these purposes.

The RFS does not have an overarching strategy to guide its planning, procurement, or distribution of the firefighting fleet

RFS fleet planning and fleet allocations are based on historical fleet sizes and compositions, and distributed to locations where there are appropriately trained brigade volunteers.

The RFS takes an asset protection approach to bushfire prevention and planning that is based on the Australian and New Zealand Standard for Risk Management. This approach requires that the RFS identify assets at risk of fire, and develop treatment plans to protect these assets. However, fleet requirements are not linked to NSW asset protection plans, meaning that fleet is not allocated according to the identified risks in these plans. Further, the RFS does not develop fire prevention plans for areas where there are no identified assets.

The RFS has not conducted future-focused fleet research or planning into technologies that match fleet capabilities to emerging or future fire risks. Since the significant fire events of 2019–2020, the RFS has not changed its approach to planning for, or assessing, the operational capabilities of the fleet. The RFS advises it is scoping a project to match resources to risk, which it plans to commence in 2023.

The RFS does not have effective oversight of fleet maintenance activity across the State, and is not ensuring the accuracy of District Service Agreements where maintenance responsibilities are described

The RFS does not have a framework to ensure that District Service Agreements with local councils are accurate. Almost two thirds of service agreements have not been reviewed in the last ten years, and some do not reflect actual maintenance practices. There is no formalised process to ensure communication occurs between the RFS and local councils for fleet management and maintenance.

RFS fleet management systems at the central level are not integrated with RFS district-level databases to indicate when fleet assets are in workshops being maintained and serviced. The RFS has a new centralised Computer Aided Dispatch System that relies on accurate fleet locations and fleet condition information in order to dispatch vehicles to incidents and fires. A lack of interface between the district-level fleet systems and the centralised RFS fleet dispatch system, may impact on operational responses to bushfires. 

The RFS has not made significant changes to the size or composition of the firefighting fleet in the past five years and does not have an overarching strategy to drive fleet development

Since 2017, the RFS has made minimal changes to its firefighting fleet volumes or vehicle types. The RFS is taking a fleet renewal approach to fleet planning, with a focus on refurbishing and replacing ageing firefighting assets with newer appliances and vehicles of the same classification and type. While the RFS has adopted a fleet renewal approach, driven by its Appliance Replacement Program Guide, it does not have a strategy or framework to guide its future-focused fleet development. There is no document that identifies and analyses bushfire events and risks in NSW, and matches fleet resources and fleet technologies to meet those risks. The RFS does not have fleet performance measures or targets to assess whether the size and composition of the fleet is meeting current or emerging bushfire climate hazards, or fuel load risks across its 44 NSW Fire Districts.

The RFS fleet currently comprises approximately 4,000 frontline, operational firefighting assets such as tankers, pumpers, and air and marine craft, and approximately 2,300 logistical vehicles, such as personnel transport vehicles and specialist support vehicles. Of the land-based firefighting vehicles, the RFS has maintained a steady number of approximately 3,800 tankers and 65 pumpers, year on year, for the past five years. This appliance type is an essential component of the RFS land-based, firefighting fleet with capabilities to suppress and extinguish fires.

Since 2017, most RFS fleet enhancement activity has been directed to upgrades and the modernisation of older fleet assets with new safety features. There is limited evidence of research into new fleet technologies for modern firefighting. The RFS fleet volumes and fleet types have remained relatively static since 2017, with the exception of the aerial firefighting fleet. Since 2017, the RFS has planned for, and purchased, six additional aircraft to add to the existing three aircraft in its permanent fleet.

While the RFS has made minimal changes to its fleet since 2017, in 2016 it reduced the overall number of smaller transport vehicles, by purchasing larger vehicles with increased capacity for personnel transport. The consolidation of logistical and transport vehicles accounts for an attrition in fleet numbers from 7,058 in 2016, to 6,315 in 2017 as shown in Exhibit 2.

The firefighting fleet management system is not always updated in a timely manner due to insufficient RFS personnel with permissions to make changes in the system

The RFS uses a fleet management system known as SAP EAM to record the location and status of firefighting fleet assets. The system holds information about the condition of the firefighting fleet, the home location of each fleet asset, and the maintenance, servicing, and inspection records of all assets. The RFS uses the system for almost all functions related to the firefighting fleet, including the location of vehicles so that they can be dispatched during operational exercises or fire responses.

Staff at RFS Headquarters are responsible for creating and maintaining asset records in the fleet management system. RFS District staff have limited permissions in relation to SAP EAM. They are able to raise work orders for repairs and maintenance, upload evidence to show that work has been done, and close actions in the system.

RFS District staff are not able to enter or update some fleet information in the system, such as the location of vehicles. When an RFS District receives a fleet appliance, it cannot be allocated to a brigade until the location of the asset is accurately recorded in the system. The location of the asset must be updated in the SAP EAM system by staff at RFS Headquarters. District staff can request system support from staff at RFS Headquarters to enter this information. At the time of writing, the position responsible for updating the fleet management system at RFS Headquarters was vacant, and RFS District personnel reported significant wait times in response to their service requests.

The RFS conducts annual audits of SAP EAM system information to ensure data is accurate and complete. RFS staff are currently doing data cleansing work to ensure that fleet allocations are recorded correctly in the system.

Communication between brigades, local councils and the RFS needs improvement to ensure that fleet information is promptly updated in the fleet management system

RFS brigade volunteers do not have access to the fleet management system. When fleet assets are used or moved, volunteers report information about the location and condition of the fleet to RFS District staff using a paper-based form, or by email or phone. Information such as vehicle mileage, engine hours, and defects are all captured by volunteers in a logbook which is scanned and sent to RFS District staff. RFS District staff then enter the relevant information into the fleet management system, or raise a service ticket with RFS Headquarters to enter the information.

Brigade volunteers move fleet assets for a range of reasons, including for fire practice exercises. If volunteers are unable to report the movement of assets to RFS District staff in a timely manner, this can lead to system inaccuracies. Lapses and backlogs in record keeping can occur when RFS staff at district offices or at Headquarters are not available to update records at the times that volunteers report information. A lack of accurate record keeping can potentially impact on RFS operational activities, including fire response activity.

Brigade volunteers notify RFS District staff when fleet appliances are defective, or if they have not been repaired properly. District staff then enter the information into the fleet management system. The inability of volunteers to enter information into the system means they have no visibility over their requests, including whether they have been approved, actioned, or rejected.

Local councils are responsible for servicing and maintaining the firefighting fleet according to the Rural Fires Act, but this responsibility can be transferred to the RFS through arrangements described in local service agreements. Council staff record all fleet servicing and maintenance information in their local systems. The types of fleet information that is captured in local council records can vary between councils. RFS staff described the level of council reporting, and the effectiveness of this process, as 'mixed'.

Councils use different databases and systems to record fleet assets, and some councils are better resourced for this activity than others

Firefighting fleet information is recorded in different asset management systems across NSW. Each council uses its own asset management system to record details about the vested fleet assets. All three councils that were interviewed for this audit had different systems to record information about the fleet. In addition, the type of information captured by the three councils was varied.

Exhibit 10: Systems used by local councils to manage the firefighting fleet
System Hawkesbury City Council Uralla Shire Council Wagga Wagga City Council
Financial asset management system TechnologyOne Civica Assetic
Asset management system TechnologyOne Manual MEX

Source: Audit Office analysis of information provided by the RFS and local councils.

Local councils have varying levels of resources and capabilities to manage the administrative tasks associated with the firefighting fleet. Some of the factors that impact on the ability of councils to manage administrative tasks include: the size of the council; the capabilities of the information management systems, the size of the staff team, and the levels of staff training in asset management.

Uralla Shire Council is a small rural council in northern NSW. This council uses financial software to record information about the firefighting fleet. While staff record information about the condition of the asset, its replacement value, and its depreciation, staff do not record the age of the asset, or its location. Staff manually enter fleet maintenance information into their systems. Uralla Shire Council would like to purchase asset maintenance software that generates work orders for fleet repairs and maintenance. However, the council does not have trained staff in the use of asset management software, and the small size of the fleet may not make it financially worthwhile.

The Hawkesbury City Council uses a single system to capture financial and asset information associated with the firefighting fleet. Hawkesbury is a large metropolitan council located north-west of Sydney, with a relatively large staff team in comparison with Uralla Shire Council. The Hawkesbury City Council has given RFS District staff access to their fleet information system. RFS District staff can directly raise work orders for fleet repairs and maintenance through the council system, and receive automated notifications when the work is complete.

Two of the three audited councils report that they conduct annual reviews of fleet assets to assess whether the information they hold is accurate and up-to-date.

More than half of the fleet maintenance service agreements between the RFS and local councils have not been reviewed in ten years, and some do not reflect local practices

Local councils have a legislated responsibility to service, repair, and maintain the firefighting fleet to service standards set by the RFS. Councils may transfer this responsibility to the RFS through District Service Agreements. The RFS Districts are responsible for ensuring that the service agreements are current and effective.

The RFS does not have monitoring and quality control processes to ensure that service agreements with local councils are reviewed regularly. The RFS has 73 service agreements with local councils or groups of councils. Sixty-three per cent of service agreements had not been reviewed in the last ten years. Only four service agreements specify an end date and, of those, one agreement expired in 2010 and had not been reviewed at the time of this audit.

The RFS does not have a framework to ensure that service agreements with local councils reflect actual practices. Of the three councils selected for audit, one agreement does not describe the actual arrangements for fleet maintenance practices in RFS Districts. The service agreement with Hawkesbury City Council specifies that the RFS will maintain the firefighting fleet on behalf of council when, in fact, council maintains the firefighting fleet. The current agreement commenced in 2012, and at the time of writing had not been updated to reflect local maintenance practices.

When District Service Agreements are not reviewed periodically, there is a risk that neither local councils nor the RFS have clear oversight of the status of fleet servicing, maintenance, and repairs.

RFS District Service Agreements set out a requirement that RFS and local councils establish a liaison committee. Liaison committees typically include council staff, RFS District staff, and RFS brigade volunteers. While service agreements state that liaison committees must meet periodically to monitor and review the performance of the service agreement, committee members determine when and how often the committee meets.

RFS District staff and staff at the three audited councils are not meeting routinely to review or update their service agreements. At Wagga Wagga City Council, staff meet with RFS District staff each year to report on activity to fulfil service agreement requirements. Uralla Shire Council staff did not meet routinely with RFS District staff before 2021. When liaison committees do not meet regularly, there is a risk that the RFS and local councils have incorrect or outdated information about the location, status, or condition of the firefighting fleet. Given that councils lack systems to track and monitor fleet locations, regular communication between the RFS and local councils is essential.

The RFS has not established processes to ensure that local councils and RFS District personnel meet and exchange information about the fleet. Of the three councils selected for this audit, one council had not received information about the number, type, or status of the fleet for at least five years, and did not receive an updated list of appliances until there was a change in RFS District personnel. This has impacted on the accuracy of council record keeping. Councils do not always receive notification about new assets or information about the location of assets from the RFS, and therefore cannot reflect this information in their accounting and reporting.

RFS area commands audit system records to ensure fleet inspections occur as planned, but central systems are not always updated, creating operational risks

RFS District staff are required by the Rural Fires Act to ensure the firefighting fleet is inspected at least once a year. Regular inspections of the fleet are vital to ensure that vehicles are fit-for-purpose and safe for brigade volunteers. Inspections are also fundamental to the operational readiness and capability of RFS to respond to fire incidents.

RFS Area Command personnel conduct audits of fleet maintenance data to ensure that fleet inspections are occurring as planned. These inspections provide the RFS with assurance that the fleet is being maintained and serviced by local council workshops, or third-party maintenance contractors.

Some RFS Districts run their own fleet management systems outside of the central management system. They do this to manage their fleet inspection activity effectively. Annual fleet inspection dates are programmed by staff at RFS Headquarters. Most of the inspection dates generated by RFS Headquarters are clustered together and RFS Districts need to separate inspection times to manage workloads over the year. Spreading inspection dates is necessary to avoid exceeding the capacity of local council workshops or third party contractors, and to ensure that fleet are available during the bushfire season.

The fleet inspection records at RFS Headquarters are not always updated in a timely manner to reflect actual inspection and service dates of vehicles. District staff are not able to change fleet inspection and service dates in the central management system because they do not have the necessary permissions to access the system. The usual practice is for RFS District staff to notify staff at RFS Headquarters, and ask them to retrospectively update the system. As there is a lag in updating the central database, at a point in time, the actual inspection and service dates of vehicles can be different to the dates entered in the central fleet management system.

Fleet inspection and maintenance records must be accurately recorded in the central RFS management system for operational reasons. RFS Headquarters personnel need to know the location and maintenance status of fleet vehicles at all times in order to dispatch vehicles to incidents and fires. The RFS fleet management system is integrated with a new Computer Aided Dispatch System. The Computer Aided Dispatch System assigns the nearest and most appropriate vehicles to fire incidents. The system relies on accurate fleet locations and fleet condition information in order to dispatch these vehicles.

There is a risk that RFS Headquarters' systems do not contain accurate information about the location and status of vehicles. Some may be in workshops for servicing and repair, while the system may record them as available for dispatch. As there are many thousands of fleet vehicles, all requiring an annual service and inspection, a lack of accurate record keeping has wide implications for State fire operations.

RFS is currently exploring ways to improve the ways in which fleet inspections are programmed into the fleet management system.

RFS provides funds to councils to assist with maintaining the firefighting fleet, but does not receive fleet maintenance cost information from all local councils

Each year the RFS provides local councils with a lump sum to assist with the cost of repairing and maintaining the firefighting fleet. This lump sum funding is also used for meeting the costs of maintaining brigade stations, utilities, and other miscellaneous matters associated with RFS business.

In 2020–21, the RFS provided NSW local councils with approximately $23 million for maintenance and repairs of appliances, buildings, and utilities. Ninety councils were provided with lump sum funding in 2021, receiving on average $257,000. The amounts received by individual councils ranged from $56,200 to $1,029,884.

Some councils provide itemised repairs and maintenance reports to RFS District staff, showing the work completed and the cost of that work. However, not all councils collect this information or provide it to the RFS. Local councils collect fleet maintenance information in their local council systems. In some cases, the responsibility for fleet maintenance is shared across a group of councils, and not all councils have oversight of this process.

The RFS has not taken steps to require local councils to provide itemised maintenance costings for the firefighting fleet. Thus, the RFS does not have a clear understanding of how local councils are spending their annual fleet maintenance funding allocations. The RFS does not know if the funding allocations are keeping pace with the actual cost of repairing and maintaining the fleet.

RFS District staff report that funding shortfalls are impacting on the prioritisation of fleet servicing and maintenance works in some council areas. When fleet servicing and maintenance is not completed routinely or effectively, there is a risk that it can negatively impact the overall condition and lifespan of the vehicle. Poor processes in relation to fleet maintenance and repair risk impacting on the operational capabilities of the fleet during fire events.

The timeliness and effectiveness of fleet servicing and maintenance is affected by resource levels in RFS Districts and local councils

Local councils have a legislated responsibility to service and maintain the firefighting fleet to the service standards set by the RFS. Fleet maintenance is usually done by the entity with the appropriate workshops and resources, and the maintenance arrangements are described in District Service Agreements. RFS District staff conduct annual inspections to ensure that the firefighting fleet has been serviced and maintained appropriately, and is safe for use by brigade volunteers. If the fleet has not been maintained to RFS service standards or timelines, RFS District staff may work with local councils to support or remediate these works.

The effectiveness of this quality control activity is dependent on relationships and communication between the RFS Districts and local councils. While some RFS staff reported having positive relationships with local councils, others said they struggled to get fleet maintenance work done in a timely manner. Some councils reported that funding shortfalls for fleet maintenance activity was impacting on the prioritisation of RFS fleet maintenance works. When fleet maintenance work is not completed routinely or effectively, it can negatively impact on the overall condition and lifespan of the vehicle. It can also reduce the capacity of the RFS to respond to fire events.

Fleet quality control activities are carried out by RFS District staff. In some of the smaller RFS Districts, one person is responsible for liaising with local councils and brigade volunteers about fleet maintenance and repairs. In the regions where resources are limited, there is less ability to maintain ongoing communication. This is impacting on fleet service and maintenance timelines and the timeliness of fleet monitoring activity.

The RFS has mutual support arrangements with agencies in NSW and interstate, though shared fleet levels are yet to be quantified

The RFS has arrangements with state, federal, and international fire authorities to provide mutual support during fire incidents. In NSW, the RFS has agreements with the three statutory authorities – Fire and Rescue NSW, the Forestry Corporation of NSW, and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. The agreement with Fire and Rescue NSW provides a framework for cooperation and joint operations between the agencies. The agreements with the Forestry Corporation of NSW and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service describe the control and coordination arrangements for bush and grass fires across NSW. These arrangements are set out in legislation and incorporated into local Bush Fire Risk Management Plans.

The RFS has agreements with fire authorities in three of the four Australian states and territories that share a border with NSW – the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland, and South Australia. Each agreement sets out the arrangements for mutual assistance and joint operations, including arrangements for sharing aircraft. The agreement between the RFS and Victoria had lapsed. The RFS told the NSW Bushfire Inquiry that the agreement with Victoria would be finalised by June 2020. In June 2022, the RFS reported that the agreement was in the process of being finalised.

The arrangements for mutual aid from Western Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania, are managed by the National Resource Sharing Centre. These agreements set out the arrangements for interstate assistance between Australian fire services, emergency services, and land management agencies in those states and territories.

These mutual support arrangements may assist during state-based fire events. However, when there are competing demands for resources, such as during the bushfires of 2019–2020, there can be limits on fleet availability. During the 2019–2020 fires, resources were stretched in all jurisdictions as these fires affected NSW, Victoria, and Queensland.

There are opportunities for the RFS and other NSW agencies to quantify fleet resources across the State and identify assets that can be mobilised for different fire activities. This form of fleet planning may be used to enhance surge capabilities during times of high fire activity. There are also opportunities for the RFS and other agencies to match the levels of shared assets to projected bushfire risks.

Appendix one – Responses from agencies 

Appendix two – About the audit 

Appendix three – Performance auditing

 

Copyright notice

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

 

Parliamentary reference - Report number #376 - released 27 February 2023

 

Published

Actions for Government's acquisition of private property: Sydney Metro project

Government's acquisition of private property: Sydney Metro project

Transport
Planning
Whole of Government
Compliance
Infrastructure
Internal controls and governance
Project management
Risk

What the report is about

Sydney Metro is Australia’s largest public transport project. It requires the acquisition of many private properties, including residential and business properties.

This audit assessed the effectiveness of the acquisition of private properties for the Sydney Metro project. The audited agencies were Sydney Metro, the Department of Planning and Environment (Valuer General NSW) and Transport for NSW (the Centre for Property Acquisition).

The audit assessed agencies against the framework for property acquisitions in New South Wales. It did not re-perform the valuations done for individual properties that were acquired by Sydney Metro.

What we found

Acquisitions of private property for the Sydney Metro project were mostly effective in the sample of acquisitions we assessed. We found Sydney Metro:

  • complied with legislative and policy requirements for compensation and communication with people subject to property acquisitions
  • kept accurate records of its acquisitions and applied probity controls consistently
  • did not complete detailed plans or negotiation strategies for the high-risk and high-value acquisitions we reviewed
  • did not comply with legislative timelines for most compulsory acquisitions because of delays in receiving the required information from the Valuer General in these cases.

The Centre for Property Acquisition has overseen the implementation of reforms to residential acquisition processes, but its assessment of the effectiveness of these reforms has not been comprehensive.

What we recommended

The audit made four recommendations to the audited agencies to improve:

  • plans and strategies for the acquisition of high-risk and high-value properties
  • timeliness of issuing compensation determinations for compulsory acquisitions
  • data quality on the experience of people subject to property acquisitions.

The NSW Government has the power to acquire land that is owned or leased by individuals or businesses, if it is needed for a public purpose. The power arises from the Land Acquisition (Just Terms Compensation) Act 1991 (the Just Terms Act). Government agencies that have the power to compulsorily acquire private property are referred to as ‘acquiring authorities’. People who are subject to acquisitions are referred to as ‘affected parties’ and include property owners (business or residential), businesses with a commercial lease on a property, or individuals with residential tenancy leases. In recent years, the vast majority of acquisitions by the NSW Government have been for public transport or road projects.

Sydney Metro is a NSW Government agency with responsibility for building the Sydney Metro railway project. Sydney Metro is Australia’s largest public transport project. The project requires the acquisition of a large number of private properties. Sydney Metro has been one of the largest acquirers of private property in recent years, completing over 500 acquisitions between 2020 and mid-2022, with a total acquisition value of over $2 billion. Other agencies and statutory officers involved in the acquisition of property for the Sydney Metro project include:

  • the Department of Planning and Environment (DPE), which supports the minister responsible for the Just Terms Act. DPE also provides staff to the Valuer General of NSW
  • the Valuer General of NSW, an independent statutory officer that determines compensation in cases where the acquiring authority and the affected party cannot agree on compensation for property that has been acquired
  • Transport for NSW, which includes the Centre for Property Acquisition (CPA). The CPA does not have a direct role in acquiring properties, but its responsibilities include developing guidance for acquiring agencies and monitoring and reporting on their activities.

About this audit

The objective of this audit was to assess the effectiveness of acquisitions of private properties for Sydney Metro projects. The audit assessed agencies against the legislative and policy requirements in place for government acquisitions of private property in New South Wales. In line with the Audit Office's legislative mandate, the audit does not comment on the merits of the policy objectives reflected in the Just Terms Act.

The audit examined a sample of 20 property acquisitions. This was not a statistically representative sample. While our report provides comments on Sydney Metro’s overall acquisition processes, it does not provide assurance regarding the acquisitions that were not examined for this audit.

The audit did not re-perform the valuations done for individual properties that were acquired by Sydney Metro. Affected parties who disagree with the valuation of their property have the right to seek independent assessment of this via the Valuer General and the Land and Environment Court.

Conclusion

Acquisitions of property for the Sydney Metro project were mostly effective in the sample of acquisitions we assessed. Sydney Metro followed requirements for communication with affected parties. Compensation processes were conducted in compliance with legislative requirements, but compensation determinations for compulsory acquisitions were not completed within legislated time frames due to delays in receiving these from the Valuer General. Governance and probity processes were followed consistently, with some relatively minor exceptions. 

Sydney Metro has detailed guidelines for acquisitions that are based on relevant legislation and government policy. In the 20 acquisitions we assessed for this audit, these procedures were followed consistently. This included adhering to minimum timelines for negotiation periods, engaging independent valuers and other experts when needed, and complying with governance and probity processes.

Sydney Metro staff followed requirements for communication and support for residential acquisitions by assigning ‘personal managers’ and providing additional support to affected parties when needed. The Centre for Property Acquisition (CPA) has overseen reforms to the residential property acquisition process in recent years. These reforms include the introduction of the NSW Property Acquisition Standards and the use of personal managers, in addition to the existing acquisition managers, for residential acquisitions. However, the CPA has not assessed the impact of these changes on the experiences on people affected by property acquisitions.

Sydney Metro did not comply with the legislative requirement to provide a formal compensation notice to the affected party within 45 days of a compulsory acquisition starting in any of the eight relevant acquisitions in our sample. This was because Sydney Metro must wait for the Valuer General to complete a compensation determination before Sydney Metro can send the compensation notice, and the Valuer General did not do this within 45 days. We acknowledge that Sydney Metro does not have full control over this process, and that it has taken steps to mitigate the impact of delays on affected parties. 

This chapter presents our findings on Sydney Metro's acquisition of industrial and commercial properties. Industrial properties include construction businesses and manufacturing facilities. Commercial properties were mostly properties such as shopping centres and office towers. Many of these acquisitions involve businesses and properties that are relatively complex and have high values. This means the valuation process can require multiple experts and can be lengthy and contested. Adherence to governance and probity requirements is important for these acquisitions in order to demonstrate that the acquiring authority has achieved value for money.

This chapter presents our findings on Sydney Metro's acquisition of residential properties, which include apartments and houses, and small business leases, which mostly affected businesses in small shopping centres or arcades. Most of these acquisitions were lower value compared to industrial and commercial property acquisitions and did not require as much expert advice on complex technical issues. However, residential property acquisitions can be personally distressing for the affected parties and require staff from the acquiring authority to provide support and show empathy while ensuring legislative compliance and value for money.

Appendix one – Responses from agencies

Appendix two – About the audit 

Appendix three – Performance auditing 

 

Copyright notice

© Copyright reserved by the Audit Office of New South Wales. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without prior consent of the Audit Office of New South Wales. The Audit Office does not accept responsibility for loss or damage suffered by any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any of this material.

 

Parliamentary reference - Report number #375 - released 9 February 2023