Local government reform advice under wraps until after council elections

By postponing draft recommendations, the minister denies residents the chance to vote on the key question: can small communities make big decisions on complex systems such as planning, consenting and three waters?

Comments: This year’s local elections will be the most important and compelling in decades (though the bar is low).

In two weeks, voters will begin receiving their ballot papers in the mail. Of all our biggest cities, one can predict the outcome of the mayoral race with certainty only in Tauranga: there won’t be one.

There, a Government-appointed commission will continue to work to rebuild the broken-down government of our fastest growing city, hiking company rates to pay for transport infrastructure and pay down debt – the sort of unpopular decisions elected politicians may struggle to make.

In other cities, it’s anyone’s guess who will be mayor when citizens wake up on the morning of October 9. In Auckland, Christchurch and Nelson, the incumbents are retiring to make way for hard-fought contests – 20 of the country’s 66 mayors are stepping down this year. In Wellington, Dunedin, Napier and Invercargill, the incumbents face stiff challenges.

Even in Hamilton, the strongly performing Paula Southgate is dithering in the face of a challenge from her deputy, Geoff Taylor. (The Hamilton Spectator reports a poll showing Andrea Horwath to be the frontrunner for the October mayoral election, but I think they may be talking about the city in Ontario, Canada.)

Under public pressure, Southgate has backed away from her previously forthright support for Government reform of Three Waters ownership and management – and her equivocation highlights the extent to which strands of nationwide debates are woven through this year’s local elections.

The two most apparent threads are Three Waters and opposition to vaccine mandates. Indeed, there are no fewer than seven candidates for Tasman District Council who are linked to Voices for Freedom or other conspiracy groups, stuff reports today.

But tying together these and other threads is concern at the Government’s perceived clawback of power from local communities. An example is the law change shifting decisions on fluoridating water supplies from local councils to the Director-General of Health; as soon as it was passed, Dr Ashley Bloomfield ordered 14 local authorities to add fluoride to some or all of their water supplies.

(Fluoridation of water supplies has faced longstanding, niggling opposition from isolated quarters, despite a comprehensive Royal Society review finding no adverse health effects of any significance.)

It’s important such fringe issues as fluoridation, vaccination and 1080 don’t overshadow the real underlying debate: where do we draw the line between government and local decision-making? The Government has been open about its focus on reversing 30 years of devolution, where it perceives communities to have struggled with complex infrastructure.

Examples are taking back oversight of school property from boards of trustees, pulling together the 16 polytechs, merging the 20 DHBs, centralizing many building and resource consent decisions, and of course moving management of the Three Waters assets from councils to four big new incorporations.

It’s right communities vote on how their councils handle their new, narrower and more defined roles. How will councils shape their strategic plans to complement government involvement in consenting? How will they direct their capital spending, once their borrowing is less constrained by the costs of their water infrastructure?

But it’s unfortunate the overall direction is not being debated with greater clarity.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has commissioned a Review into the Future for Local Government. Its terms of reference acknowledge the role of local government will shift from managing infrastructure to supporting community wellbeing.

What exactly would that look like? We don’t know, because Mahuta has now extended the deadline for the review’s draft recommendations from September 30 to October 28 – just after the local body elections.

This denies voters the opportunity to address that bigger issue: do we have confidence that small communities have the scale to manage big, difficult systems? When all the Wellington councils combined have made such a mess of their stinking, spouting wastewater infrastructure, what hope is there for smaller councils such as Chatham Islands or Kaikōura?

Instead, that question will be asked and perhaps answered at the Parliamentary election next year.

Local government review chair Jim Palmer and panel member Penny Hulse did offer attendees at the Local Government NZ conference a few clues. Major changes are needed to address local funding constraints, they say. Rates will remain the key tool, but other mechanisms should include new revenue generation, government co-investment and a war chest for climate change.

The review panel signaled its intent to lower the voting age to 16. They spoke of the importance of strengthening the involvement of iwi, hapū and Māori, and the need for collaboration to tackle “gnarly challenges”.

To do this effectively, there is one decision voters can and should make at this year’s local elections. With respect, local government is quite remarkable for its domination by older, white men. The numbers don’t lie. To provide the range of experiences needed to improve the quality of decision-making, there is an urgent need for greater diversity of representation.

Does that mean more conspiracy theorists? I hope not. It does mean better participation in local elections.

“If we are to have thriving and prosperous communities and have a system of local governance and government that we are proud to leave as a legacy to our children and their children,” Hulse says, “then change needs to start now.”

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