The Local Government Act Amendment Bill has had its first reading in Parliament. One of the key parts of the bill is redefining the reason local government exists. Should councils be focused on priorities that local people agree on, or should they be just another branch of central government?
The basis of the proposed changes seems largely ideological rather than driven by a particular problem. Council debt, losses on tourist initiatives and rates rises above the rate of inflation have been the subject of regular media releases from central government. A very small number of councils have made mistakes and local government is partly responsible for the traction these stories get in the news. We’re not always great at helping the public understand the balancing act between local expectations, affordability and the existing regulatory frameworks council has to operate within.
Most councils seem to share concerns about the lack of evidence upon which the draft legislation is based and about the implications of working under legislation that hasn’t been well thought out. Similar reservation were expressed by the officials who submitted a statement along with the draft legislation and said they could find no evidence to support most of content of the bill. This lack of confidence was reinforced this week in the unanimous rejection of the proposed change of purpose at a meeting of all local government authorities.
Three separate public inquiries have concluded that the sector has not significantly expanded the scope of its activities since 2002. When pushed, the Prime Minister would not exclude things like social housing, swimming pools, libraries or tourism promotion from falling within the proposed new purposes. So the general feeling is that the current purpose is fine – the uncertainty created in the proposed new purposes would open up a can of worms in terms of legal challenges and that there was no problem that will be solved with the proposed change.
As has been suggested locally, I would be open to a social housing trust taking over Council housing if it had the experience and could prove it could do as good or better job than Gisborne District Council currently does as a landlord. Such a move would need to ensure the housing is provided to those who most need it, particularly as central government is similarly messing with the provision of social housing and has been criticized by its own Productivity Commission for having no clear plan or rationale for the changes.
I don’t think we should hold on to purely commercial assets if they aren’t consistently providing a return on investment better than what we’d get if we used the capital to pay off debt and reduce interest payments. As far as I can tell, the first asset to divest the Council of should be the farms. I struggle to understand why some people believe Council must maintain ownership of the farms while we pay millions in interest on debt. How ‘pragmatic’ is that?
The reality is the proposed change of purpose would not result in Council stopping anything it currently does, but it would give more fuel to fire of the ideologues who argue local government should take no interest in the wellbeing of our communities beyond roads and rubbish. A change of purpose would waste staff time defending the participatory planning processes that result in more enduring decisions than if we think councillors or staff know best. I also suspect it would undermine opportunities for Council, as the one fully democratically elected local entity, to have some influence on how our taxes and rates are spent to help meet the needs and aspirations of our communities.