Monday, June 13, 2011

Frank Newman: Devolution of council consents

Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt wants to start a rebellion. But it’s not a return to his make love not war activism days; it’s not as idealistic. He is fighting against the suggestion to centralise the processing of building consents in New Zealand's major cities. Pretty mundane for an activist, but spending too many terms on a local council tends to do that to people.

The Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson has confirmed the government is looking at taking the building consent role away from local government and centralising it into a government agency. The Minister is asking for feedback from the building industry but has not ruled out leaving things as they are.

On first blush mayor Tim’s rebellious opposition is a little hard to fathom. Councils have been heavily involved on the receiving end of substantial court actions over the leaky building scandal. The claims against council have generally been successful, although usually limited to 25% on the total claim on the grounds that building inspectors were reasonable in placing reliance on products approved fit for purpose and on designs prepared by qualified designers. But even the 25% liability is running into many billions of dollars that will of course end up hitting ratepayers in the pockets.

The opposition from local councils is, they say, because they fear the quality of the service will suffer. I am not so sure - it may well just be a case of patch protection. The Invercargill City Council chief executive officer said the changes could become a "bureaucratic nightmare". Some would say the consenting process already is a bureaucratic nightmare and the proposed changes are an opportunity to make it better.

If the issue is about service, then councils should support the proposal in principle, but express concerns about keeping the service local so applicants can speak face to face with a real person rather than have to send forms to Wellington or to some other anonymous office.

Councils could see this as an opportunity to rent out part of their office space to central government so, as far as the public is concerned, nothing much would change, while at the same time ridding itself of an activity that has a high risk of litigation.

In my view, councils should actually embrace the possibility of central government taking over this role, and go one step further and ask them to take over resource consent processing also. That way all consents could be a central government function, managed in local offices by the staff currently employed by the local council. It would also once and for all remove any possibility of local politicians interfering with resource consents, either for personal gain or to use as a weapon against others.

It’s time local body councillors and CEOs put the interest of ratepayers ahead of their ambitions to build ratepayer funded empires. Councils should not only welcome the removal of their consenting responsibilities, they should encourage it. That way they could reduce overheads, reduce rates (yeah right!), generate revenue by leasing space to central government, avoid exposing ratepayers to future litigation arising from claims of negligence, and best of all it could get on with the business of maintaining and improving infrastructure – like leaky sewerage pipes causing effluent to flow into our supposedly clean green waterways!


Ben said...
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your proposal transfers the liability and costs of building consents to taxpayers, all of whom who happen to be....ratepayers. Left pocket-right pocket doesn;t solve the central issue : public liability for shoddy private mistakes. The existence of building consents for residential work means builder can always hide behind Council consents and final 'sign off'.

kiki said...
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Why have a building code? Just have buyer beware no council sign off but a list of people involved who sign off their jobs personally.

Mike said...
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The new building code was a draconian response to the leaky building crises caused by govt approving untreated timber. Councils should not be liable for this. NZ now desperately needs compliance costs and time delays eased to allow the fast tracking of projects to provide urgently needed employment. The code and consent process is the single biggest barrier to this.If centralising worked then bring it on.

I am dubious. My feed back from the creation of Aucks super city has not been good. During the 90s private building certifiers in competition with councils greatly improved the process. Bring them back or even better, Kiki's idea of no code. Let liability reside with the parties concerned as per contracts and the dictates of natural justice.

Anonymous said...
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".....councils should actually embrace the possibility of central government taking over this role, and go one step further and ask them to take over resource consent processing also...."

HEAR, HEAR. The country needs to break the stranglehold on economic growth, that councils, speculators, and NIMBYists currently have. We need a few "new towns" where businesses and households can actually afford to buy property. Even the OECD's reports are starting to point up the connections between "land" regulation and economic performance. The McKinsey Institute Report on Britain's economy in the early 1990's was an early landmark of analysis in this regard.

What is being done to western economies by anti-development ideologies is so bad that they might as well have been devised by the KGB in the cold war as an economic WMD.

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