Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Uncertainty surrounds new role of councils

Auckland City. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Auckland City. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The debate about what a council should and should not be doing has resumed this week as the heads of local arts, cultural and social programmes ask the Government if local government reforms will leave them out in the cold.

The Local Government Act Amendment Bill has attracted more than 500 submissions from a cross-section of society.

This is because the creative sector, health providers and organisers of social schemes remained mystified whether they would still get council funding or leadership if the bill passed.

The Government originally said local authorities would be stripped back to "core functions" - roads, rubbish and infrastructure. The bill removed councils' need to care for communities' "social, economic, cultural and environmental well-being".

But the line between core and non-core business was muddied when the Government admitted councils would still be able to invest in the Ellerslie Flower Show, a Rugby World Cup, the World of Wearable Arts or fireworks displays.

This uncertainty was evident in the submissions to a select committee this week.

Creative New Zealand chief Stephen Wainwright, whose organisation is appearing before the committee tomorrow, said there was a "very fuzzy line" between core and non-core council activities. He argued that arts were an economic driver and could not be easily dismissed as a non-core activity.

He noted that the Pasifika Festival was described by ratepayers as the event which best reflected Auckland as a community, but it would not have been introduced if councils focused only on infrastructure.

"There's no one that's going to support something like [Pasifika] from the private sector at the level and the reach that the event has, and that is true of a lot of things - everything from Eden Park to the Aotea Centre."

Local Government Minister David Carter has said councils would retain some say on what they felt was a core service, but would have to do rigorous cost-benefit analysis to show it was of "significant benefit" to the community.

Mayors Taskforce for Jobs chairman Dale Williams said this could make it more difficult to retain council schemes or activities that had intangible benefits.

He feared legal challenges to councils if they persisted with schemes considered non-core: "These days somebody living on Waiheke Island could take a legal challenge to my council to say, 'Stop doing this, we don't think it's your core business'."

Mr Williams, who is Mayor of Otorohanga, introduced a youth job scheme in 2006 which eliminated unemployment in the region. The taskforce said this was an example of a council-led social initiative which had not depended on a rates increase.

Auckland Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse also hoped that councils' roles would be defined by councillors and ratepayers, not in the courts.

"While we can waste a huge amount of time and money and legal opinions deciding is this a council function or not, we already debate those every day."

- NZ Herald

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