Local Government Minister, Paula Bennett, is tackling what she calls loopy rules and has set up a Rules Reduction Taskforce to look into the matter. It's appropriate that a review into loopy rules should be led by the Minister of Local Government, given it seems to be the source of many dumber than dumb rules.
Here's a case in point, as reported by the Nelson Mail. It involves the Nelson City Council and a fence building property owner. To most people the fence looks like an ordinary fence, about 1.8 metres high with wooden palings, the sort you buy from your local DIY store.
Unfortunately the DIY property owner ran into trouble with the local council because, wait for it, the gap between the fence palings was less than 25mm. The offending fence had gaps of about 10mm (or the width of a builder's pencil).
Council compliance staff responded to the alarm after receiving a complaint about the fence from a member of the public. They descended upon the property and proceeded to issue an abatement notice (no doubt prepared by the councils lawyer at great cost), which demanded the offending property owner correct the breach or remove the fence.
The homeowner appealed the abatement notice in the Environment Court, and in pre-hearing mediation it was decided that the owner should apply for resource consent to make his fence "legal". It seems the matter has been settled and the less than 25mm gaps will stay.
According to the council, the point of having gaps of no less than 25mm is to create safer communities. Their logic is that having an "open" fence is so people on the street can look through to the house and those in the house can look through to the street.
How stupid is that? The whole point of a fence is to create privacy! And why does some council policy planner twiddling their thumbs between tea breaks think they know better than a homeowner about the spacing of their fence palings?
This sort of thing should just be laughed out of existence, but it's pretty much the norm from local government. Unfortunately, the very people we elect to protect us from this insanity appear to go a along with it and offer weasel words when confronted by the media.
In this case Nelson's mayor said, "From time to time council's view isn't the mayor's view...This one just makes me grumpy. My personal opinion is that I'd rather ratepayers and councils spent time and money on more important things than regulating fence paling gaps. If [the] fence had been allowed to remain as is, without modification, that might also suggest there is little value in the enforcement approach."
The mayor does not seem to appreciate that she was not elected to defend council staff and stupid council rules: She was elected to protect the public from council staff and stupid rules. It's plainly absurd that the mayor seems to think she is powerless to bring some sense to this matter. Clearly the mayor trusts the public to elect her to office, but she does not trust them to decide on what is an appropriate gap between the palings on their fence.
Herein lies the danger of bureaucrats and why we need to be protected from them. Their solution to every problem, real or imagined (usually the latter), is more regulation, and when that does not work, their solution is more regulation.
In this case council staff was responding to a complaint. While, "Don't be such an nutcase" would be an appropriate reply to most complaints made to councils (especially by recidivist complainers), council staff do tend to be more polite and they need to demonstrate that they have taken the "appropriate action". That means arriving with their clipboards looking for a resolution that first and foremost protects their own butt from accusations that they didn't do anything, and secondly provides a plausible reply to the complainant. In most cases that involves subjecting the offending landowner, like a villainous fence builder, to a great deal of form filling and box ticking, as well as thousands of dollars in council fees, and even more money on lawyers only too happy to skin the person in trouble of a few thousand dollars for exchanging long letters with the council about learned issues like a fence palings that cost a few dollars each.
Minister Bennett has a challenge on her hands if she thinks she can put an end to loopy local government rules, but she deserves every encouragement.