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!
at 7:30 PM