Is it the local council's job to solve homelessness and curb gambling? Fight climate change? Support education initiatives? Stimulate business growth in the CBD? Where once the public expected councils to primarily build and maintain infrastructure and ensure community facilities are serviced, now social issues command public conversation and many local councils are diverting time and resources to addressing them. Does the public know what the role of local councils is and has it changed in recent years? Journalist Stephanie Arthur-Worsop reports.
If you were stopped in the street and asked what your local council was meant to do for the city, would you know the answer?
Most locals appear to have vague ideas about footpaths, roading, rubbish and sewerage coming under a council's command but other responsibilities, including addressing social issues, were less clear.
One retiring councillor says that could come down to a rise in pressure from central government for local councils to respond to social issues but could also be that people just don't know what comes under a local council's jurisdiction.
According to the Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) website, local councils are responsible for a wide range of services including, but not limited to, roading, water reticulation, sewerage, libraries, recreation services, community and economic development and town planning.
However, councils also have considerable freedom to undertake different activities, as long as they consult their communities in making the decisions.
This flexibility allows each council to accurately reflect and respond to the specific circumstances of their district.
But differences from city to city can also make it difficult to know what is and isn't within a council's power.
An informal street poll conducted by the Rotorua Daily Post found most residents knew councils had to look after infrastructure but it was not until prompted that they considered the role councils had to play with social issues.
This is despite the Local Government (Community Well-being) Amendment Act that came into effect this year stating local authorities were to "play a broad role in promoting the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of their communities".
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Most who spoke to the Rotorua Daily Post agreed issues like homelessness should be dealt with by local council but opinions differed on issues like the environment and climate change.
Kawerau couple Bob and Inez Masefield said with the amount of money they paid in rates, they would like to see everyone get a fair share of that money.
It's not the council's job to take care of issues like climate change.
"The council has the most power to solve homelessness. They are the ones who do the resource consents and have empty buildings, they are able to find solutions and make them happen.
"We're passionate about the homeless but it's not the council's job to take care of issues like climate change."
Glenholme resident Trish Neels said she believed it was the council's job to cater for people so any issues affecting residents fell under its umbrella of responsibility.
"I don't think the council takes care of its pensioners enough. It spends money on all sorts of projects that don't help people."
Local woman Amanda Hunt, who used to work for the regional council, was clued up on what each council did but said she believed the average resident wouldn't know.
"I think the general public has no idea what the regional council and local council does. Many wouldn't know how important the local council is in their everyday lives.
Hunt said the local council was responsible for "everything" and that included social issues.
"The local council has a big role to play in environmental issues, which I think are more important. Climate change is absolutely a topic councils should be focusing on as they look forward to the future."
Even the locals vying for a seat on Rotorua Lakes Council in this year's election had varying opinions on the types of social issues that came under local government and how far that responsibility extended.
Some said social issues should only be financially funded after infrastructure was taken care of while others said councils had a fundamental responsibility to be involved in solving social issues affecting their communities.
The LGNZ website states councils were established to provide the services and infrastructure communities need to survive and prosper.
These services are paid for through property tax - the single form of tax New Zealand councils can gather.
Other forms of income can come from the sale of goods and services such as swimming pool charges, regulatory fees like parking infringements, interest earned from investments, including Council-Controlled Organisations and through grants and subsidies.
It is with the funding generated from these tools that each local council is to meet the expectations and needs of the community now and in the future.
So, when a council decides to financially support health initiatives or tackle housing and homeless problems, as Rotorua Lakes Council has, that funding has to come from the same pool of money.
But are local councils obliged to address issues like these with financial support?
Local Government New Zealand principal policy adviser Dr Mike Reid says while councils have a responsibility to address social issues, the way each council chooses to do so is up to them.
"It's a misguided view that a local council's job is to only cater for infrastructure. Since its inception, Local Government has been primarily there to look after public health - infrastructure is just one aspect of that."
"But Local Government has a limited financial pool to draw from so it really comes down to how councils want to respond to social issues, whether they say 'yes, we will help either financially or through partnership' or 'we will alert central government'.
"We are seeing more instances where local councils are playing the role of advocate in getting social issues in communities put in front of central government.
"Local councils have a responsibility to be aware of and take an interest in the social issues their communities face but how they deal with that is up to them."
Reid said the whole point of local government was to cater to the needs specific to their community which is why legislation allowed councils to have flexibility in what they do and do not support.
"Citizens will have different expectations and views of what the most pressing issues in their community are and it's up to the council to respond to those. Because of this, you can't really talk about local government as a single entity.
"Urban councils, for example, face these social issue pressures a lot more than rural councils. You will see these urban councils work to cater to these pressures while rural councils may be able to put more of their energy into infrastructure or environmental pressures."
When asked whether this had resulted in a change in role for local councils, Reid said legislation surrounding the role of local councils hadn't changed but public perception had.
"The volume of social issues we are seeing in the community has increased significantly. When people go to central government and find it is not capable of fixing these problems, people turn to local government."
Retiring councillor Charles Sturt, who sat around the council table for more than 30 years, disagrees, saying in his opinion the role of local councils has changed drastically.
"The council is expected to advocate on all issues. Before, all we were responsible for was roading, rubbish, sewerage and water. Now we are required to advocate and facilitate solutions to a wide range of social issues.
"A lot of extra responsibilities have been hoisted upon us by central government but I do not believe it is the ratepayers' responsibility to fund these.
"There is a limit to what we can do so in the past six years at least, a lot of solutions to issues are being delivered through partnerships with iwi, social agencies and philanthropists."
Sturt said if the council didn't have the resources to support a cause, it was still the council's job to advocate for support from the Government.
"If we don't advocate for the people in our community who will. We can't fund everything but we can put those cases to central government and ask for help."
Rotorua Lakes Council chief executive Geoff Williams said councils were expected to understand the issues facing communities and develop, alongside the central government sector as a whole, solutions or interventions to address those.
"In the pre-election report I have highlighted what we currently see as being key, significant challenges facing our community within the wellbeings domain.
"In response to the new expectations by central government of local government, what we are doing at the moment is working with central government agencies to look at a more integrated response to social challenges in our district.
"As an example, the council is working with the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and Housing New Zealand on the development of a long-term housing plan for Rotorua."
Williams said the council was also looking to bring together the regional leads of central government agencies, along with the mayors, committee chairs and chief executives of councils to look at how they could work together more effectively.
"While the legislative changes bring new expectations around a more integrated and substantive collective response, that's not to say council is not already actively working to address social issues, as is expected by the community."
Candidates say: Should it be local government's role to address social issues in the district? Why/Why not?
Yes, but balanced by elected representatives against other demands. Social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeings have been added to the council's responsibilities, without matching funds. The council must also continue, in law, to provide democratic decision-making, infrastructure, public and core services, and regulations that are cost-effective for households and businesses.
Mayoral and council candidate
The Local Government (Community Well-being) Amendment Act 2019 provides for local authorities to play a broad role in promoting the social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeing of their communities, taking a sustainable development approach. The council is therefore required by law to be involved in addressing social issues in the district.
Mayoral and council candidate
Business revitalisation is definitely a local government issue, however the other topics could be with central government financial support.
Yes. Because it's back as the legislated purpose of local government. At every election meeting, groups ask candidates to address everything from homelessness, crime, safety, drug and alcohol abuse through to mental health. There's no escaping the fact that at a minimum councils have a leadership role to play here.
A council has limited resources so it must ensure that it provides core council services and infrastructure whilst advocating and ensuring a partnership with central government to provide support and funding to address these issues. Where practical, the council may look to find solutions or respond to localised issues.
Sandra Kai Fong
The four Wellbeings will be a consideration in all future policy decisions, however, social issues are complex. The council is not resourced to meet the demands alone, and this complex matter requires a collaborative approach with central government-funded agencies in order to deliver services to those most in need.
When suffering, or the potential of it, is great then I believe we should do what is in our power to ease that suffering. We are here to represent you and govern on your behalf, if that is your will for the council then that is what we must do.
Yes, in the form of leadership and partnership, when systemic issues impact community and economic development, local government must act. If central government or its agencies require local support, we must act. When your community cries for help, we must act.
Social responsibility is for everyone. It is being dumped into the role of councils which councils use as an excuse for not doing their core services properly. Get the core infrastructure right and a majority of social issues will fix themselves naturally.
Yes, we can solve local issues with local solutions. The council has a significant role to play in ensuring good quality of life for locals. But this includes having affordable rates so if the government gives us this extra responsibility, we also need extra funding to be able to do it.
It should not be the role of the council to deliver social issue programmes, nor education, business, homelessness or climate change initiatives as core functions. However, it is absolutely the role of the council to champion better partnership (with government, business and iwi) to maximise resources and outcomes on these critical issues.
Councils must consider the wellbeing of their communities as required by the Local Government Act. It is a no brainer that we work in partnership on housing, jobs for our rangitahi and community safety. I am proud we are working with partners but there is more to do to address the big issues.
Yes, it is the council's job to look after our town and we do have to act for the sake of people being lost, hungry, poor and homeless in supporting local welfare groups for food, clothing and health checks. This will allow our city to become free of homeless.
There are many factors to social issues, poverty being one. The solution requires a systemic change at government level but we can't wait or rely on them. We will all have to work together to help our people. With your food basket and my food basket, everyone will have enough.
Alan Tāne Solomon
A council's prime role is to provide the infrastructure needed for homes and industrial development, not provide social services. There are numerous government and charitable agencies who should cover social problems.
Yes! Absolutely I think local government has a role to play in working towards sustainable solutions and strategies to address our social issues. The problem is much deeper than not having a home, it is disconnection and colonisation in progress. Crown oppression has been detrimental to mental health and addiction.
A council is required to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeing of the whole community. The impact of council spending and rate rises on the elderly and low-income families cannot be ignored. Homelessness and poverty are a council responsibility. The council will need to lead efforts on climate change.
Impact on people should be centre of all council decisions. In 2018 central government-mandated councils to promote wellbeing, so a council has a legal responsibility to respond. If elected, I would be keen to see the council partner with experts to implement sensible cost-effective programmes to improve our city's wellbeing.
It is the fundamental responsibility of the council to look after the community in which it serves. Therefore addressing social issues should arguably be its top priority. Social issues affect everyone from top to bottom so by dealing with these we create a fairer and happier community in which everybody thrives.
Yes, a council's role is to do an excellent job on infrastructure, our roads, our rubbish, homelessness and the wellbeing of our people. This is part of including all of our community, environment, and business in developing a vibrant city to live where all citizens feel safe and listened too.
There are many issues that should be the government's responsibility such as homelessness, substance abuse, crime etc ... But where we can assist financially or act as an advocate with appropriate agencies, we should consider what support we can provide. After all, these are our people, our community.
If central government wants to step up to the plate and fund councils for what is essentially their patch then well and good. In the meantime, a council's role is to control rates, find ways to reduce debt, replace aging infrastructure and make it easier to build badly needed housing.
I think councils are essentially service providers - sewers, water, roading, parks etc - they are not social welfare providers. However, councils are uniquely positioned to work locally – given adequate funding - with the government, iwi, not for profits, health providers and police to find solutions to most of these challenges.
I believe local government has a role in advocating on behalf of local residents, to draw attention to local issues, and to partner with central government to resolve them. But I don't believe this should be paid for using local rates – this should be funded from general taxation (PAYE & GST).
A council's role is to support all of its citizens but sometimes it can't do this alone. I believe that on social issues, a council works best when it collaborates with experts and agencies better resourced to offer solutions. A council should raise issues and lead from the front at all times.
Social issues are complex: inadequate housing, little or no income, often poor physical and mental health. Families need specialist support services that the council doesn't have. A council can advocate, facilitate and demand action from those currently paid to do this work. It's not for the faint-hearted and has sadly been allowed to get worse.
Yes. A whole community, collective approach will be most beneficial to addressing social issues in our district. A council needs to strengthen partnerships with our local iwi to determine appropriate methods to support whānau most in need. Te Tatau will be required to embed these methods.
The government is offloading its responsibilities on to local councils. Business revitalisation is a local issue as is playing their part in climate change. Housing and homelessness should be government-funded through taxes we all pay. These issues cannot be lumped on to ratepayers. It's nothing more than a government cop-out.
Did not respond: Liz Carrington, Julie Kerry, Raj Kumar, Lachlan McKenzie, Conan O'Brien, Linda Rowbotham, Fisher Wang, Bam Whare.