Key Points:

Given Rodney Hide's penchant for the dramatic gesture, it is not surprising that the new Minister of Local Government is signalling a wholesale redrawing of New Zealand's local government map.

However, it is profoundly worrying that key elements of the local government reform agenda emerging from the new National coalition Government appear to be driven more by a faith in an outdated neo-conservative political ideology than by sound policy analysis. Nor do they make good pragmatic sense.

As a minister who means business, he has already highlighted a number of possible targets for reform:

Simplify the current two-tier structure of local government by amalgamating territorial local authorities and regional councils into a single tier (unitary authorities).

Do away with the powers of general competence (ie the ability to do anything unless it is expressly forbidden by law) in the Local Government Act 2002 and restrict councils to their core activities of roads, sewerage and rubbish.

Relax the public consultation requirements in the act.

Cap rates to the level of inflation (CPI) in order to curb high rates increases.

Force councils to withdraw from all commercial activities. They should divest themselves of their commercial operations by way of privatisation and should contract out services.

The main motivation underpinning this "back to basics" reform agenda is the rhetoric of curbing local government cost, and keeping local government out of people's lives and conduct of business.

But deep down in this vein of thinking are more insidious ideological preconceptions about who we are as a society and what the legitimate role of government ought to be. Most Kiwis, apart from those to the far right, would feel uncomfortable with such views.

In this respect most New Zealanders see themselves having more in common with the worldviews of European social democrats than with those of American neo-conservatives.

No one disagrees with the wisdom of exercising financial prudence in local government given the current global economic climate. But arguably, there are two other imperatives that are equally pertinent to designing the architecture of our local government institutions for the 21st century - sustainable development and democratic accountability.

Disappointingly, Mr Hide's vision of local government, implicit in his reform agenda, betrays scant appreciation of these "big picture" considerations.

It is now universally recognised that local government has a key role in facilitating a transition to a sustainable society. Local government has emerged as an active player in this role through innovative initiatives that extend beyond the proverbial three Rs: roads, rubbish and rates.

It is essential that local government is mandated and resourced to carry out this role. The Local Government Act, through its granting of powers of general competence, empowers local government to do this.

The act is based on the premise that councils should play a broad and proactive role in responding to community objectives and promote social, economic, cultural and environmental wellbeing.

If taken on board, Mr Hide's reforms will strangle the ability of local government to satisfactorily exercise this sustainability leadership and social learning role.

In the particular situation facing provincial New Zealand, a major sustainability challenge now and for the foreseeable future is wise management of productive rural land and water resources.

Getting to grips with "wicked" environmental problems, such as non-point source or diffuse pollution caused by crop and pastoral land use intensification, is imperative if New Zealand is to retain its competitive edge in global markets.

Institutionally, regional councils are far better placed to undertake this role than single-tier unitary authorities which combine the functions of territorial and regional councils.

The essence of local government is local democracy. Traditionally, we trust our institutions of electoral democracy because we presume that elected members will adequately represent the values and priorities of their communities.

There is much research evidence, however, to indicate that electoral democracy is a relatively blunt instrument in this respect, particularly in situations of growing social diversity at national as well as regional and local levels.

The community engagement and consultation requirements in the Local Government Act are designed to enhance the scope for participatory governance. The act recognises that central and local government, and other service providers, need to work collaboratively with communities to promote community wellbeing.

These provisions in the act have not worked as well as they should have and have become frustrating for councils, as well as for those who have sought to participate. But this is primarily because of a lack of guidance and funding from central government and poor implementation of the act by local authorities.

Elected members feel the community is usurping their role and have paid lip service to these potentially innovative participatory governance provisions. Disappointingly, in many local authorities it is business as usual.

For example, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has come to the conclusion that "communities feel completely over-consulted and there are times when the process is delayed and extended a great deal by consultation ... the Local Government Act ... has cost local government a huge amount". The Mayor of Invercargill, Tim Shadbolt, is reported to hold similar views. But where is the evidence to support this assertion?

Instead of embarking on yet another local government restructuring frenzy, it is time to have an informed conversation about what is working and what is not working well in local government.

This will help enormously to enhance public awareness and understanding of the sustainable development and community engagement potential of the act. This is manifestly not the case at the moment.

Mr Hide is championing himself as the Minister for Ratepayers. But does he realise that he may in fact be marginalising a significant sector of New Zealand society who are not property owners, such as children, and those who can't afford or do not wish to be property owners?

Wouldn't it be better if he were to position himself instead as the Minister for Communities?

* Ali Memon is Professor of Environmental Management at Lincoln University's Environment, Society and Design Division.