Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Local government report ‘a missed opportunity’ amid cyclone recovery

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Long-awaited report overtaken by rural NZ’s recent weather-related and farming challenges.
Fed Farmers board member and Tairāwhiti farmer Sandra Faulkner says the local government report may be a victim of bad timing, with Gabrielle having changes much for rural councils.
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A long-awaited report on local government reform has been described as a missed opportunity, with little reference to either farming or Cyclone Gabrielle’s impact.

It is, say critics, unlikely to shift the dial on rural communities’ local government challenges.

He piki tūranga, he piki kōtuku, the local government reform report, was two years in the making. 

But Federated Farmers board member Sandra Faulkner said she fears it may have been caught out by February’s cyclone, which has had such a devastating impact on rural communities that its full lessons are still to be learnt.

“A couple of things do come out of the report, and the positive is the common theme about finding local solutions for local communities,”  Faulkner said.

The report recommended re-organising local government to strengthen and support councils to plan and respond to challenges and opportunities in their area. 

However, Faulkner does not agree with the report’s recommendation that a dedicated Crown department be established to enable better working relationships between central and local government.

“Sensible partnerships are already in place. It’s like they [the report’s authors] have come in and said local government don’t know how to do their job. They do, they just do not have the resources  to do it as well as they would like.”

She was uncertain whether the financial recommendations in the report would go all the way to improving the cash flow to local councils, now strung out with major post-cyclone infrastructure costs, and grappling with issues such as managed retreat.

The report recommends considering transferring the annual GST take from rates bills to councils, something considered a tax upon a tax.

It also recommends that the central government pays rates on property it owns in regions, and that an intergenerational fund for climate change be established by local councils.

In labelling the report a missed opportunity, Faulkner said she is concerned about its preoccupation with requiring local councils to become more focused on community wellbeing. 

The report authors say that wellbeing requires a more holistic approach over and above traditional council concerns of water, roading and waste management, to also include cultural expression and democratic participation.

“But wellbeing is completely different between people, how do you measure it? If you can’t measure it, you cannot report it,” Faulkner said.

“For those who rely on any level of service from their council, central government needs to support local government better to supply those services.” 

Jeff McNeill, a Massey University senior academic in environment and planning, said the report is well meaning and well intentioned but doomed to be forgotten, coming after a series of reports on local government reform in the past decade.

“And there are too many unpalatables in it for central government … coming up to an election year, there is no value for government in it,” he said. 

The “unpalatables” include requiring central government to pay rates on property and paying the GST portion of rates back to local councils.

Minister of Local Government Kieran McAnulty gave the report a lukewarm response when it came out, labelling its reform suggestions important but secondary to the current disaster recovery response.

McNeill said while far from perfect, and needing some sorting out, local government does work on a day-to-day basis for most people. 

While issues such as Gore council’s dispute have grabbed headlines, they tend to be small issues nationally and far from a constitutional crisis.

“And most other councils are ticking along.”

He agreed with Faulkner’s interpretation of wellbeing as something that could mean “everything and anything for everyone”.

He said the financial solutions are one of the biggest disappointments of the report.

“It seems oblivious of past solutions suggested, as in the Shand Report back in 2009.”

As an academic he is also appalled by the lack of reference to any overseas literature and research on local government.

“You also need to look at form, function and funding simultaneously and that has not been done here , it is piecemeal.”

He was perturbed by the lack of any reference to impending resource management reform, and the latest iteration of Three Waters.

“Those changes are welded in, and no government will re-configure them out now.”

 Wairoa District mayor Craig Little said he felt the report was a good one until the word “reorganisation” was mentioned.

“It is not a good word for a lot of us in Hawke’s Bay, having been through that scenario that was divisive and a waste of time.”

However, he welcomed the focus on funding issues, the crux of many councils’ problems.

The full report can be read here.

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