This week the exchange between Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker reached soprano pitch. It seems the Minister is frustrated that the Council is too occupied with having its hand out for central government aid and doing too little to help itself. That exchange comes in a background of ratepayer protest against the council and calls for mid-term elections. All is not well in Christchurch civic circles, and change seems inevitable.
It’s fair to say all is not well in local government generally. The new Minister of Local Government, Nick Smith, also has local councils in the firing line. In Parliament yesterday he made the comment that in the decade since 2002 the average annual rate increase was 6.8% (compared to the CPI index of 3%). In the decade before 2002, the average increase was 3.9%. He went on to say that had there not been the sharp rate increases ratepayers would on average be paying $500 a year less in rates, and the total annual rate take for all council would be $1 billion less than it is today. He concluded by saying, “The government is working on a package of reforms for local government to ensure these ongoing large increases don’t continue”. The figures released by the Minister are very condemning and quantifies the concerns expressed by many people for many years.
2002 is critical because it was the year reform of the Local Government Act gave councils general powers and required them to express the outcome of their policies as “well-beings”: cultural, social, environmental and economic. How this “happiness is more important than money” notion arrived onto our shores and ended up in our legislation is an interesting story in itself, but needless to say the concept is fundamentally flawed.
Combining general powers with politics, a general lack of competency, and a diminished regard for the importance of money is always going to result in failure, and the socialist architects of the Act were simply out of touch to think otherwise.
Having spent two terms on the local council I have come to the view those councils that are not already disaster zones are simply disaster zones in the waiting. The failure is basically that councillors are not competent and/or courageous enough to force their staff to do a better job – it seems council CEOs are virtually unaccountable for poor financial performance and poor service delivery. This is in stark contrast to private sector where (generally) directors know what their role is - to establish the organisation’s objectives and to make sure those objectives are achieved by those paid to do so. If time reveals staff are not up to the task it’s the responsibility of the directors to replace them with those who can. That’s the way it should be, and it’s in everyone's interest that it is so.
Besides not knowing their role, eager-to-please councillors are generally not astute enough and/or strong enough to counter the approaches of a very long queue of activists who have identified local government as the soft underbelly of politics. We have seen this locally in the GE campaign which having been rebuffed by central government turned their attentions to local government (and our local councils in particular as a gateway). Instead of redirecting the lobby group back to central government, local councillors (with the rare exception) have entertained the advances and sometimes sought to use it to enhance their own political standing. There are countless other examples, reserved seats on council by Maori activists, so-called “smart growth” limiting urban boundaries by environmental activists, being others.
Although Nick Smith’s reforms is welcomed, applause should be withheld until the nature of the reform is more visible. Unfortunately politicians usually say the “answer” involves making local councils bigger (more influence is after all their stock in trade!).
Bigger councils simply create bigger problems that are more difficult to correct (Auckland being the obvious example). Bigger councils are more removed from the communities they claim to represent and they take on an authoritarian personality and totally contradict the notion of councils being local.
At the end of the day it is in every property owner’s interest that their local council is efficient, otherwise it is they who pays.