Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: New bill could damage our well-being

The ice-rink at Aotea Square would be endangered, along with many public pleasures, under new legislation.
 Photo / Michael Bradley
The ice-rink at Aotea Square would be endangered, along with many public pleasures, under new legislation. Photo / Michael Bradley

Hit by rates rises announced this week? Has the Government got a deal for you! It's in the process of changing the law to help councils spend less.

The snappily titled Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill 2012 plans to scrap some of the core purposes of councils, so they no longer have to promote the "social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities". After all, who wants those things? Instead, councils just have to look after "local infrastructure, local public services and performance of regulatory functions" - in other words, rubbish and red tape.

And voila! Council debt will disappear, just by getting rid of those well-being "nice-to-haves".

The trouble is that Local Government New Zealand - and more surprisingly, Treasury - can't find any evidence that the four well-beings are costly; the legislation risks being "incorrectly aligned" to its purpose. So it won't work and rates will still go up.

And at the same time, we risk getting less bread and fewer circuses. According to the Creative Coalition (an Auckland arts and creative industries group) and contrary to what the Government thinks, there is very little duplication of arts and cultural services between local government and the private sector or central government.

If the Auckland Council stops contributing to, say, the Southside Festival, the Basement Theatre, circus workshops, voice classes and Romanian heritage days, nobody else will fill that gap. (Or if you disagree and are happy to cough up - please, let's scrap arts pokie funding instead.)

The Creative Coalition is particularly incensed by the loss of the responsibility for cultural well-being, but coalition board member Candy Elsmore points out that the four well-beings are so broad their deletion would be "a massive deal for everybody who's involved in anything".

Sports fields, pools, art galleries, theatre companies, the Aotea Square ice rink (so deservedly popular that it has extended its season for another week), community centre play groups, housing, parks, even promoting economic growth - you name it, the council has no legal responsibility to support things like these any more.

Councils are still allowed to support them, but Local Government Minister David Carter - who inherited the amendment bill from his predecessor Nick Smith and its idea-hatcher Rodney Hide - has been reported as saying councillors have told him the changes would give them "the ability to say no to some activities that we are asked to undertake on behalf of our communities".

This is a worry. I want my council - and each individual local board - to be compelled to take the four well-beings into account. I don't want any well-being neglected by any particular political group which has a narrow agenda, or is being pressurised by a power-hungry Wellington into toeing the line and being boring.

In a significant Auckland Council and Creative New Zealand poll run last year, 76 per cent of Aucklanders agreed their "local council should give money to support the arts". The other quarter, the party-poopers, shouldn't be able to ruin it for the rest of us. At the moment they can't. And that's the way it should stay.

- NZ Herald

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