by Eugenie Sage
Local government has a vital role in providing the services that can strengthen communities and make places that people want to live in.
National’s Local Government Act Amendment Bill (the bill) will potentially cause the most significant changes to local government since the amalgamations and restructuring of 1989. Government uses the language of fiscal responsibility and “streamlining” and claims it has a reform agenda which will benefit ratepayers.
The reality is very different. The changes are the result of an ideological agenda rather than evidence based. As the Government’s own Regulatory Impact Statement from the Department of Internal Affairs says, “There is limited evidence to inform the development of these proposals, and the timeframes within which the proposals have been developed have restricted the ability to assess multiple options.” Local Government New Zealand have also released a discussion document on the bill, which raises concerns about the scale of the changes and the lack of consultation on the bill.
The debt figures the Government uses to claim that Council debt is spiralling are three years out of date. The Long Term Plans (LTPs) for 2012-22 show that Councils plan to borrow less during this period than 2009 LTPs indicated.
The bill is constitutionally inept and anti-democratic. It muddles the separation between central and local government by giving the Minister substantial power to interfere with and direct councils. The bill gives the Minister new powers to require information from councils, appoint a Crown Review Team, Crown Observer, or Crown Manager or replace councillors with Commissioners and postpone any election. Ratepayers and the council have to pay for these Ministerial appointees even though they report to Wellington not local people.
Every three years councillors are accountable to their communities through the ballot box for their decisions on resource planning and the rates they collect and spend. The bill will have a potentially chilling effect on local government if councils are always looking over their shoulder and worrying about the Minister’s view of their operations and financial management, rather than the local community.
The current purpose of local government includes “to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeing of communities.” The bill would replace this with the more restrictive purpose that councils “play a broad role” in meeting community needs for “good-quality local infrastructure, local public services, and performance of regulatory functions.” This provides scope for central government to promote more contracting out and private provision of council services and infrastructure.
New Zealand’s councils are already large by international standards in the number of people they represent and the geographic area they serve. National’s pro-amalgamation agenda promotes bigger unitary councils. These are likely to be more remote from and less responsive to the communities they purport to represent.
The bill will make it more difficult for the public to have their say on any re-organisation or amalgamation proposal. It truncates the current several step process involving councils consulting electors and then the Local Government Commission notifying a draft scheme and communities voting on this.
For there to be a poll, at least 10 % of eligible voters must sign a petition seeking such a poll within 40 days. Under current law such a referendum is automatic and happens in each affected council district, rather than the whole area.
Everyone wants efficient and effective local government. This should not be at the cost of local democracy and elected councillors listening to local communities and making decisions which represent their communities’ aspirations and views.
The Local Government Act was significantly overhauled and changed in 2002 with the intention of empowering local communities and making local authorities the instruments of local democracy through which communities achieved the outcomes they aspired to. The changes that the Government would introduce wind back that philosophy and put councils under the thumb of Wellington.
Submissions on the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill close on the 26th of July.