Peak rates, a relationship reset, money from central government, longer terms and a possible amalgamation of councils. All this and more in the long-awaited review of the future local government, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.
The current local government system is not set up for future success
“The series of compounding crises we are experiencing are unlikely to abate… All of these challenges are felt at place and will only intensify over the next 30 years.” These very relaxing phrases are why I watch a lot of very stupid television these days but also come from the full and final report from the Future for Local Government review panel which was charged with ascertaining whether local government in New Zealand is fit for purpose. No wonder then that the panel has seized this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and recommended almost a complete re-tooling of local democracy, built from the grassroots up. Central to the panel’s findings, after two years of consultation, is the conclusion that the relationship between local and central government needs a reset, with the report describing a marginalisation of local government by successive governments. It’s not the most frequent word used throughout the report but “devolution” comes up several times, the panel emphasising that local government not only has a larger role to play in building “local solutions for national-level problems” but in the reform process as well. Ultimately the report concludes the current local government system is not set up for future success.
Money should flow from central to local government
One of the biggest recommendations is that more money flow from central to local government, with many people telling the panel we have reached “peak rates”. While rate rises in metropolitan areas tend to get a lot of coverage, smaller areas with smaller rates bases are left with few options to increase revenue beyond upping rates that are already high. Whakatāne for example, is the fourth largest geographical area in the country but has a small population and therefore a smaller rates base. For a while, it had the third-highest rates in the country. South Waikato District Council is suggesting an 18.5% rate rise this year. Jono Milne at Newsroom quotes Neil Holdom, mayor of New Plymouth, who points out that “central government gets 91% of tax revenue, while councils get the remaining 9%, but we provide 40% of our public infrastructure.” To combat this, the panel has recommended that councils pay rates on council land used for schools, hospitals and conservation estate and that the GST collected off rates be returned to local government.
On participation and the running of elections
Turnout at last year’s local government elections just nudged the 40% mark. On improving participation in local democracy for both voters and those who might consider standing, the panel suggests a range of measures including embracing citizen-led democracy and reviewing what elected members are paid. The report finds that postal voting is not fit for the future but acknowledges the many issues associated with online voting, simply saying that “the panel encourages decision-makers to explore a range of alternative options for distributing and receiving votes in local body elections.” It also recommends adopting ranked voting (STV) as the nationwide method for local elections. It has proposed terms be extended to four years, that the Electoral Commission run local government elections and that the voting age for local government elections be 16, something partially in play already. Many of these recommendations line up neatly with Toby Manhire’s suggested ten steps to “reverse the ‘absolute shambles’ of collapsing local turnout”
No amalgamation agenda but some firm suggestions
The report is careful not to knock the efforts of council staff and those elected throughout the country but residents of the 78 territorial authorities across the country now could probably all point to examples of a system groaning under a burden of what it’s expected to deliver within its current means, hamstrung by current operating and governance models. The ongoing tension in Gore is well-documented. Commissioners are still in place in Tauranga. Hot on the heels of Monday’s news that a $250m error was found in the cost-benefit analysis for reducing speed limits in Wellington, there’s news this morning that an investigation has been launched after the city’s council committed a “serious harm data breach” by releasing personal details of people involved in road crashes including the names of drivers and medical details such as blood alcohol levels and drug use. The panel denies it has an amalgamation agenda, saying local government should be enabled to work out what’s best, but it did put forward suggestions for a complete reorganisation of councils. The Herald’s Derek Cheng has good detail on that, including the suggestion that the 15 regions proposed in the Resource Management Act reforms could be a starting point.