Sue Kedgley: Govt meddling in council affairs troubling to all

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Auckland Mayor Len Brown should be far more autonomous than John Key and central government are prepared to allow. Photo / Dean Purcell
Auckland Mayor Len Brown should be far more autonomous than John Key and central government are prepared to allow. Photo / Dean Purcell

As councils head to the polls this year, local government finds itself under attack, with its powers shrunk and its autonomy undermined.

Over the past four years, the Government has been quietly eroding the autonomy of local government and expanding its own powers to intervene in the affairs of councils, and direct what they can do.

In the process, local government has been left in a weakened state, very much under the thumb of central government.

It's clear that when National came to power in 2008, it saw local councils as an obstacle to some of its plans. And so, through a series of law changes and direct interventions, it set about changing the rules and stripping away some of the powers of local government.

First, it got rid of the Canterbury Regional Council, under urgency in Parliament.

Then it forced Auckland's seven councils to amalgamate into a new Auckland Super City, and directed that 75 per cent of its functions are delegated to corporate boards, whose members are largely hand-picked by government, and operate in secret.

Then it amended the Local Government Act to give central government much greater powers to intervene in local government. It also narrowed the scope of local government; instructed councils to restrict themselves to certain "core" activities that central government prescribes, and gave itself the power to set limits, or a sort of financial cap, on councils' ability to generate revenue.

It then stripped away councils' ability to decide on local roading projects. It did this by stipulating that the Government's pet motorway projects had priority over all other roads in New Zealand, and by draining away funding from other local roading projects.

And now, under proposed new amendments to the Resource Management Act, it is giving itself the power to intervene directly in council planning processes.

Under new proposals released by Environment Minister Amy Adams, ministers will be able to direct what councils can put in their district plans, and amend them if they don't like what is in them. They will also be able to intervene directly in council consent hearing processes.

If the Government thinks the "benefits of dealing with an issue nationally outweigh the benefits of local decision-making", it will be able to "call in" a consent, and get it heard by a board of inquiry, whose members will be hand-picked by government.

There are other proposals that will change the way councils operate. For example, the Government will be able to limit the scope of public participation in consent submissions and appeals.

All of these changes take away decision-making power from councils, and give ministers unprecedented powers to tell them what they can and cannot do. In so doing they are quietly changing the constitutional relationship between central and local government.

It is a widely accepted constitutional convention that councils operate in a largely autonomous way, independent of central government, and can choose what activities they want to pursue, in consultation with their own communities.

But the Government's reforms are eroding the autonomy of local government. With its new powers, the Government can override local councils and implement its own agenda, even if it is contrary to what a local community wants, and this is happening in Auckland on a regular basis.

The Government has vetoed the Auckland Council's plan to build an inner city rail loop, and is threatening to amend its new plan to open up more land outside the existing urban limit - even though the council is adamantly opposed to such a move. Amy Adams has even suggested stripping council of some of its planning powers for three years to allow a government agency to increase the city's residential land supply.

I predict that we will see more and more of these sorts of interventions into the affairs of local councils.

When the Government created the Auckland Super City, members of Parliament were assured that the Auckland mayor would be the second most powerful person in New Zealand.

But as recent interventions demonstrate, the mayor of Auckland is effectively powerless if the Government disagrees with his council's policies, and decides to veto or override them.

The Productivity Commission warned recently that central government was treating local government as an arm of central government, and that as a result, tension was developing between them.

This is exactly what is happening - the Government is seeking to implement its political agenda through local government, and in the process local government is becoming increasingly subservient. In a country where there are few checks and balances against the abuse of executive power, everyone should be concerned about this.

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.

- NZ Herald

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