Simeon Brown (Image: Getty Images)
Simeon Brown (Image: Getty Images)

The BulletinJuly 10, 2024

A reform of local government was scrapped. What happens now?

Simeon Brown (Image: Getty Images)
Simeon Brown (Image: Getty Images)

The government has opted not to progress any of the recommendations made by a 2023 review panel, explains Stewart Sowman-Lund in this extract from The Bulletin. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

‘Timely and necessary’

Back in 2021, a plucky new MP by the name of Christopher Luxon said a review of our local government system was “timely and necessary”. Then but a humble spokesperson for local government, Luxon said National (in opposition) welcomed a new review dubbed the “Future of Local Government”, saying it was a good chance to consider “what local government does, how it does it, and how it is financed”. Just three years later, that work quietly came to a grinding halt under Luxon’s leadership. As RNZ reported, the government last week opted not to progress any of the 17 recommendations made by a review panel in 2023. Local government minister Simeon Brown claimed the review had been launched in response to the Three Waters reforms and “lost its way” by focusing on issues like lowering the voting age and changing the voting system. “These issues are a distraction from the key issues facing local government,” Brown said. So today, what are the issues facing local government, and do our political leaders have a plan?

What was on the table

The report’s findings made significantly more of a splash than the decision to scrap them last week. Andrea Vance at Stuff had the scoop first, reporting that the future of local government could see fewer councils, elections on a four yearly cycle and the somewhat controversial lowering of the voting age to 16. Newsroom’s Jonathan Milne homed in on some of the more technical aspects, noting proposals for central government to pay council rates on schools and hospitals, and for councils to have access to a new climate adaptation fund. In short, summarised Anna Rawhiti-Connell in The Bulletin at the time, the review signalled “an almost complete retooling of local democracy”. Critically, noted Vance, the report was not yet government policy. Labour opted to bump any decisions on the proposals until after the election (which it of course lost) as it focused on “bread and butter” issues. The rest is history.

How Tauranga is key

Against the backdrop of these recommendations were two notable council crises that illustrated the need for reform. One, the discord within the Gore District Council, appears to have resolved itself somewhat in the months since. But the other, as we discussed in a recent edition of The Bulletin, is about to take a monumental leap. Tauranga is days out from its first election in five years and will be the only local council elected this year, barring an unexpected local government disaster elsewhere.

Newsroom’s Jonathan Milne argues that the protracted troubles in Tauranga are illustrative of the broader challenges facing local government, and prove that central government should be getting involved. Rates rises in the city have risen by an average of 15.9% this year, while the commissioners in charge imposed a road levy of $70 per household to help finance critical infrastructure. It was these “scattergun” attacks on ratepayers that prompted the Future of Local Government report in the first place, Milne says. The issue of rate rises is certainly not limited to Tauranga, as Nelson’s mayor Nick Smith wrote recently for the Sunday Star-Times. His column concluded with this: “Councils are right to challenge the government about some of the costs it is imposing but we also need to be prepared to reform ourselves and become more efficient.”

Where to from here

Smith, a former senior minister in the John Key government, could have a key role to play in the future of local government. While the government has decided against implementing the report’s proposals, Smith has been tasked with leading a new reform group established by Local Government NZ. As part of this, reported RNZ, he will look at some of the issues the previous review panel had recommended.

Interestingly, as The Spinoff’s Shanti Mathias reported earlier in the year, the government has been ever so slightly more open at looking at changes to our wider electoral system following a similar review released earlier in the year. But what about local councils? When announcing the decision to dump the review, Simeon Brown gave a small indication of the government’s future plans, though nothing is on the cards yet. He acknowledged “the need to reform funding and financing, and planning for long-term economic growth, housing and infrastructure”, and referenced the coalition’s revamped water reforms and regional deals. But he took swipes at broader proposals, such as Māori wards and the voting age. It could, as The Spinoff’s Joel MacManus wrote recently, have something to do with the government’s (at least public) perspective that local communities are best served to make decisions on their futures. Or perhaps, as argued by the former mayor of Kāpiti in The Post, it’s because of a “parliamentary ivory tower that does not see fit to commit taxpayer dollars to councils to give them that capacity and capability to be effective”.

Keep going!