Wiser councils may prevail

By Ewan McDonald

The Government's move to curb council rates and debt levels and return local bodies to their "traditional roles" surfaced in Parliament recently.

Local Government Minister David Carter told the House the bill would shift councils' focus to providing infrastructure and public services at the lowest possible cost to households and businesses. The country's 78 local authorities would have to show their public services are "efficient and effective".

It sounds emininently sensible and for those on the right, or the further right, wings of National and Act it's more exciting reading than a couple of chapters of 50 Shades of Grey before bedtime.

They know ratepayers don't want to see mayors and councils and CEOs spending on V8 Supercar races (Hamilton), a Hundertwasser Arts Centre (Whangarei), David Beckham football matches (Auckland and Wellington), or stopping smoking in parks (Auckland).

John Banks was fuming about the last-mentioned in our pages recently.

The council's focus is wrong, he said: "Auckland ratepayers are feeling the pinch. Rather than focus on side issues that will increase costs for ratepayers without a good return on that investment, it would be better if Auckland Council focused on its core functions and services, such as water supply, sewage disposal, roading, libraries, parks and community halls."

Mr Banks knows of that which he speaks. During his last term as Mayor of Auckland City, millions of dollars earmarked for community activities like swimming pools were amputated from the city budget. (It was the former regional council's officers who blew a whack of public money on David Beckham's runaround at Mt Smart.)

What the present Act MP for Epsom conveniently overlooks is: it was the previous ACT MP for Epsom, during his short but exuberant stay at the Local Government Ministry, who did emphatically and explicitly the opposite when he set up the rules of engagement for the new Auckland Council.

Far be it from me to suggest that the new and old Actors don't seem to be on the same page here, but ... while Kiwis might whinge about living in a Nanny State, Rodney Hide created a grandaddy of a state north of the Bombays.

The new council and its seven affiliates are legally required to have their fingers in more pies than Georgie. Not just for the term of their electoral life (those who are elected, of course, but that's another rant), but for 10, 20, 30 and more years into the future.

One of the country's most informed voices on local government is Andy Asquith of Massey University, Albany. In a new paper he argues the country needs more councillors and community boards.

"The Government's obsession with a narrow view of local body efficiency totally fails to tackle the core problem of local bodies in New Zealand - that of the declining level of citizen participation," says Dr Asquith.

"Despite efforts, including the move towards postal voting, fewer and fewer of us are participating in local body elections. As this is our main involvement with local government, it is a disturbing trend."

From an international perspective, he says, New Zealand is "under-councillored".

By Jove, he might just have read The Aucklander's submission to the royal commission on how Rodney thinks Auckland might be best run.

Dr Asquith suggests there is a clear case for increasing the number of locally elected representatives and an even stronger case for more local authorities to create community boards (we call them Local Boards in the new Auckland).

He has a point, perhaps even more relevant outside Auckland, where it is not so much the number of representatives but the authority delegated from Wellington that kneecaps our suburban "representatives".

As Dr Asquith puts it, "Too often local authorities are seen as distant organisations which are out of touch with the realities of everyday life of New Zealanders."

Given that local authorities are often responsible for assets worth billions, he says, there is also a need for better training of councillors.

Dr Asquith is also concerned that the Government will use the Kaipara District Council, which is heavily in debt due to cost blowouts from a controversial wastewater scheme, as a reason to curtail council activities.

"Rather than seeking to minimise the role of local government, central Government ought to be building on their many strengths, while at the same time working to address some of their deficits. This would actually rejuvenate local democracy," he says.

"And if the Government wants to look at efficiencies, it could do itself a favour by digging out the 2007 Shand Report into rates, which outlined 96 recommendations of best practice in local body finance.

"They would greatly enhance the efficiency, economy and, most importantly, the effectiveness of all our local bodies - but successive governments have, for whatever reason, chosen to ignore them."

Perhaps Messrs Carter and Banks should have Dr Asquith's The Role, Scope and Scale of Local Government in New Zealand on their bedside tables.

Read more on Dr Asquith's report here.

What do you think? Have your say in the comment box below or head to our Facebook page.

- The Aucklander

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