U3A and your LGA

by Barrie Brennan, Tamworth U3A

Does your U3A have a good relationship with your local Council? How might this change as a result of potential amalgamations. Barrie Brennan of Tamworth U3A ponders the issues.

My comments following are the result of my observations about the role of Local Government Councils. The observations result from my activities for COTA, the local Country Music Museum and our U3A. My focus here however is our U3As.

My concern has been influenced by the notion of the amalgamation of Councils being promoted by the NSW Govt and the fact that our current Tamworth Regional Council results from the amalgamation a decade ago of 3 and a half councils.

I am also concerned that I am ‘unsure’ of where U3A fits within the current NSW Government’s picture of the state and the role of organisations like U3A.

The Tamworth Regional Council views the U3A as a ‘Seniors’ group that provides a wide program of activities to keep Seniors active and learning. Our website is connected to the Council site and potential retirees who may come to Tamworth certainly visit our site. We were given the honour of being the No 1 ‘Seniors’ organisation in Tamworth this year.

We may be perceived as being a good active group but we are not asked for our opinion or for advice. So we try to make a point of informing the Council. As an example, I have just, with U3A support of course, persuaded the Council to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the opening of our Mechanics’ Institute in 1866 (in May 2016).

We need to have this ‘passing on good news’ program to seek to broaden the view of what we represent and that we do have good ideas and plans.

But we have the problem that the community does not have a clear picture of what we do, and there is always the problem for Councils to include us as groups, particularly of Seniors, asking for favours. We are competing in our local community with so many other requests,
particularly from the charity area and related to health issues and persons with economic or mental health problems.

Another key issue for us – and other U3As of course – is transport. The city has a bus service but primarily it serves the school children and those in the villages distant from the city. There are funds made available for transport of elderly and particularly sick elderly people, but there are more demands for ‘the sick’ than the funds provided can offer.

With health, transport, accommodation and other services with higher priorities, the possibility of U3A being able to make some real contribution is problematic. If we seem to be ‘pestering’ the Council or Government departments or the agencies that are now receiving government funds on a regular basis, there seems to be a reluctance to listen to our calls for help or assistance.

The question then for us is: What do we really need to ensure that we are able to continue with our current program and lift our overall activities to help the wide community as well as our own members and other oldies?

As with other U3As, the provision of facilities for our wide range of activities is a major, and ongoing, problem. It is both of these things because access to the facility may be cancelled at short notice or the ownership of the facility may change. We have a range of activities: we need a range of locations. A key aspect is that these facilities may be located at an address that is ‘remote’ or ‘at the top of a hill’. Do we have to share in some way some part of the facility for some of ‘our time’ at the site?

In many LG areas the council does have access to properties and other facilities that could perhaps be used, and their use may be helpful to us, but there is no general, clearly identified policy from the LG body. We can argue that our use of the facility may help to reduce the isolation of elderly persons but that argument carries little weight with the Council.

Then there is the issue of a headquarters, home office + storeroom and perhaps an area where at least some of the U3A’s

materials and equipment may be stored and secured. At the moment much of our ‘gear’ is in the boots of cars or in the garages of Management Committee members. We are pleased that iPads have replaced large computers .. a storage problem somewhat reduced.

Also of concern are the costs associated with venues and the office plus storage plus space for some activities. These two activities – venues and HQ – are important factors in the costs for members. For some potential members the difference between their becoming and not becoming members may be related to the costs produced by venues and the management of the organisation. We have entered an agreement with the local Community College to hire a room at the College – they have experienced a reduction of numbers in day-time classes. The hire is quite costly and has caused us to increase our yearly membership although not with a large increase.

It is an important, but also difficult, strategy for U3As that they need to justify their contribution to the community, eg in helping outsiders come to town or to provide activities that are not offered by other organisations.

This strategy is certainly important if there is just one U3A in the council region. If there are several U3As in the region it may be necessary for the U3As to establish a combined/united strategy.

Councils – unless they are disbanded or absorbed – stay on forever. U3As define their own lifetime. The U3As require some sort of relationship with their local Council. Though a location-specific problem, it should be given some reasonably high priority in the projects for many of the U3As in the Network – especially if their town or suburb is involved in a LG amalgamation.

I do not claim to have answers to the problem of relations with local government. However, I think it is an important problem that may become more important in some areas in the near future. I would be happy to be involved in any plans for investigating this problem.