It has been nearly a year since the Better Local Government reforms were announced. Federated Farmers general policy manager Nick Clark looks at what has been achieved.
Much has happened since the Better Local Government reforms were announced.
The Minister of Local Government at the time, Nick Smith, claimed "the reforms would help keep rates affordable and debt at prudent levels by focusing councils on their core roles".
Better Local Government aimed to provide clarity on councils' roles, more responsible local financial management and stronger governance.
It includes eight specific initiatives including a rewrite of the Local Government Act, a local government efficiency taskforce, a framework around local and central government regulatory roles, an investigation into efficient infrastructure provision and a review of development contributions.
The local government sector responded by rigorously contesting whether any problem existed and attacking Dr Smith's statistics.
Over the past year, Federated Farmers has been supportive of the Local Government Amendment Bill on the basis that the role of local government needs urgent restraint and focus.
The Federation's reservation is that the real answer to this lies with property value rates reform. Despite the local government sector's opposition, the Bill passed in November and is now largely in force.
The Federation also submitted in response to the Productivity Commission's paper on local government regulatory performance, pointing to the problem of excessive regulation locally and the cost to ratepayers of responsibilities delegated to local government by Parliament.
In December, the Commission released a comprehensive draft report which we will also submit on.
Federated Farmers is watching the work on development contributions. We see their growth as symptomatic of the limits councils are reaching with property value rates.
Similarly, the work of the Expert Group on Infrastructure Efficiency will be important for farming, considering the importance of safe and efficient rural roads.
The Government is also considering the report of the Local Government Efficiency Taskforce, which investigated ways to improve local government planning, consultation and financial reporting.
While many of the Taskforce's recommendations seem sensible, Federated Farmers is concerned about removing draft annual plans and relying on the three-yearly review of long-term plans as the only opportunity for people to have their say on rates.
This could make it easier for council spending and rates to creep up and for 'tweaks' to be made to rating systems.
These may seem minor, but could impact heavily on ratepayers such as farmers.
Federated Farmers' view remains that without funding reform to reduce the over-reliance on property value-based rates, local governments' problems will never be completely solved. This must be the next phase of reform.
Overall, it is good to see this reform package advancing and the acknowledgement that local government is not working effectively.
Dramatic rates cuts may not be on the cards just yet, but we remain hopeful these reforms will get us closer to 'better local government'.