Two patsy questions by National MPs of Local Government Minister Nick Smith in Parliament this week (on increases in council debt and rates since the Local Government Act 2002) combined with Earthquake Recovery Minister, Gerry Brownlee’s recent overwrought criticism of Mayor Parker and Christchurch City Council suggest that Ministers are softening up the public for some unpopular intervention in funding the Christchurch rebuild.
Minister Brownlee’s irritation and impatience with the Christchurch Council creates the impression (deliberate or otherwise) that the Council is not competent, and that further Government intervention may be required.
While the City Council has come in for some deserved criticism its achievements post ‘quake are significant. It has delivered a forward looking plan for the central city in record time and it continues to competently provide a wide range of services that people expect from their councils from libraries to wastewater (albeit at a scale reduced by the quakes).
The pressure being applied to Christchurch City Council relates to the Government’s concerns over how the council will meet the $1 billion share for the cost of rebuilding imposed on it by the Government.
One way of raising this revenue – and a way no doubt favoured by many in the current Government – is for the council to sell off assets.
Brownlee has openly stated that the Council must have a better plan than “putting up rates or borrowing a lot more money.”
While the Government denies it is pressuring the council to sell assets – “discussions” between Treasury and CERA officials and senior Council management suggest otherwise. Then there’s the fear that Government could “do an ECan” and replace elected City councillors with Government appointed commissioners free to begin a process of asset sales.
Red Bus Ltd, Lyttelton Port Company, Orion and Christchurch airport are all assets owned by Canterbury citizens through their council. In the interests of Christchurch’s long term recovery, these strategic and revenue generating assets must not be sold.
The best prospect for Christchurch’s recovery must be to allow council to continue to prepare and consult the public on its draft annual plan and budget. The Government should be looking at other ways of raising revenue.
An earthquake levy, of the type proposed by the Green Party, would raise $1 billion each year to contribute significantly to the earthquake bill. An earthquake levy would assist central Government with the task of funding earthquake recovery.
Instead of looking at ways that all New Zealanders can help with the Christchurch rebuild the Government is pushing Christchurch residents – many who have just lost their homes – into a further financial crisis.