When I was sworn in as mayor at Pūtiki Marae in October, I said the headwinds were starting to blow for our country — some would bypass Whanganui, but some would come at us like a cold southerly.
Those winds are now beginning to bite and I am acutely aware that many are experiencing hardship, and our community has yet to feel the full effects of the cost of living crisis. Many households will have fixed-term mortgages that will come up for renewal in the next six to 12 months, at which point their interest rates will hit hard.
As people tighten their belts and access to finance gets more expensive, we can expect the construction sector to slow, which will push us further into recession. In Whanganui we have just adopted a rates rise of 7.9 per cent and are already forecasting a double- digit rates rise from July 1, 2024 — just to keep the lights on. We have taken great care to ensure we are being efficient and delivering value to our community in terms of the services we are providing and this work will continue.
Early indications are that other councils across the country are in a similar or worse position due to the triple whammy of inflation, higher interest rates and supply chain issues.
He piki tūranga, he piki kotuku (the Future for Local Government Review report to the government) was released in June and I believe there are some positive and game-changing recommendations for local government to embrace in the final report. The final sentence of the foreword says “Local government must now own and drive the change to make it fit for the future”.
So my immediate priority is to push for central government to adopt some of the Future for Local Government recommendations and for these discussions to be had leading into this year’s general election.
Many residents won’t realise that the 15 per cent GST on their rates goes to central government and is therefore not available to invest locally in our district. I support the report’s proposal that the GST collected on rates should go to councils instead of the government. I also believe government-owned properties in Whanganui should be required, like all other organisations and businesses, to pay their rates here to invest back into the community. This would boost the income needed to run the district and significantly alleviate the burden on our ratepayers. I will be urging Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) to advocate strongly for this, so stay tuned.
I have also put myself forward for selection to a LGNZ panel that will be looking at the Future for Local Government Review recommendations so we can advocate directly for a voice for local government and communities. The panel members will be selected at the LGNZ conference at the end of this month.
In the meantime, we are taking another decisive step forward and looking at our longer-term strategy for wellbeing in Whanganui. Since 2014, when the council’s Leading Edge Strategy was adopted, we have seen huge change — new technologies, population growth, our designation as a Unesco City of Design and Te Awa Tupua Act, which in 2017 recognised the special relationship between the Whanganui River, Whanganui iwi and the people of our community.
With these significant events and developments, along with the disruption of the past few years, it’s now essential that we take a bigger-picture approach.
The current economic environment across the country, and indeed the world, is presenting us with some big challenges, but while we ride out this storm we also need to look ahead and set our sights on the opportunities that will come our way in the longer term.
It is particularly important that our new vision and strategy is underpinned by our identity, our purpose, who we are as Whanganui. I invite you all to participate over the coming months in shaping an ambitious and bold vision for the future.