The local government sector is experiencing the most significant reforms in decades.
At the behest of the Government, five major reform packages are being proposed or have moved on to the implementation stage.
These include: the Three Waters Reforms, the Fresh Water Reforms, the Health Board Reforms, the Resource Management Act Reforms, plus the most recent addition, which is the Future for Local Government Reforms.
Each of these are huge and complex subjects in their own right and the proposals being touted have far-reaching consequences. Reforms of this magnitude would normally move at glacial pace, but the pace at which these particular reforms are progressing is quite bewildering.
Remember this government has absolute, unbridled power and it is clearly keen to make the most of the opportunity for change during this electoral term. It is no coincidence the consultation on the Future of Local Government Reforms is being undertaken at the same time the Three Waters Reforms proposals move closer to final decisions.
After all, if councils will no longer be providing drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services, because they have been amalgamated into new, separate centralised organisations, then it is fair to assume councils will have some spare time on their hands and will be looking for something new to fill the void.
The terms of reference for the Future of Local Government Reforms confirm my point - they are comprehensive. The scope is broad; it is not limited to the future-focused view of the following matters: roles, functions and partnerships; representation and governance; and funding and financing.
For those struggling with translating bureaucratic lingo, this means: what do we do, how do we do it and how do we pay for it? It seems no stone will be left unturned and everything is on the table, for now at least.
Along with four other Stratford councillors, I attended a workshop held in New Plymouth last week. All Taranaki councils were represented, along with some other stakeholder groups. In the brainstorming session there were several themes that found some general support.
The notion of councils being more involved with the provision of public housing and social services, possibly some community health services and community support services, all found some support.
On the issues of governance and representation, there was an overwhelming expectation of greater participation by Māori/iwi in the future functions of local government. This is a given. The Department of Internal Affairs' own website comments this review "will provide an opportunity for central government to consider how to strengthen the Maori-Crown relationship and actively embody the Treaty partnership".
Some councils are already under way with this inclusive approach, including Taranaki's four councils. Funding and finance were an interesting topic at the workshop. It is a simple problem really, there is just not enough funding to meet the needs. I still subscribe to the view that the present funding system is not sustainable because it is just not realistic for councils to keep markedly increasing rates, year on year.
The increasing expectations on what councils provide is rising at a rate faster than what the funding stream can manage. Something has to give and new funding streams are urgently needed. A few suggestions from the workshop included government subsidies or complete funding of some specific services, and maybe returning the GST component applied to rates back to the council it was derived from.
Sounds okay, but does anyone truly think that is a realistic possibility? Yeah — nah! The review panel will be providing an interim report in September (I did say earlier this was a quick process). This will be followed by a more comprehensive engagement during 2022 and the final report will be presented in April 2023.