There's life down in some of those little local ponds

Wrench the dazed gaze off black Cardiff Arms and flick to the town hall. It’s local elections time.

If you take local politics seriously or have a particular gripe or just a sense of civic opportunity or duty, you have probably already voted. If not, you probably won’t and you will be in the majority nationwide.

That democratic deficit won’t matter to the elect. They will take such votes as they get as mandate.

Some will take that mandate to be to cut rates. But their cuts will be limited, unless Wellington politicians step in.

Rate-cutters will bump into their councils’ “long-term council community plans” (LTCCPs) which all councils must draw up in accordance with strict legislative requirements and in “consultation” with citizens and must implement under the beady eyes of the Auditor-General — the chap who cost the Labour party $800,000 for spending parliamentary funds on electioneering. LTCCPs take time to change.

Moreover, infrastructure makes up a large part of the LTCCPs: $31 billion worth over the next 10 years, triple the $10 billion spent over the past 10 years. That is in part a legacy from 1990s rate-cutters. Councils, like the central government, underinvested. Citizens don’t like second-rate infrastructure.

Three-quarters of the $31 billion will go on roads, public transport, water supply and stormwater and waste water disposal. A large share of the rest is for community facilities such as parks, swimming pools and new buildings, which citizens now expect. (Some of it is in grandiose stadiums and the like, to puff up city egos.)

All of which loads the rates. But even so, the Shand inquiry reported in August, rate revenue from 2012 on will total only 2.2 per cent of GDP (national output), up from 1.9-2.0 per cent now — comparable with the 2.2-2.3 per cent of the early 1980s.

So what’s the fuss? Partly it depends where you live. Fast-growing places have bigger infrastructure bills. Partly it depends whether your council is reducing the “differential” rate (over)charged on business and as a result is pushing up house rates faster than the total rates bill. And if your council has sold all its trading enterprises the rates cannot be supplemented with dividends, as, for example, Christchurch does.

Nevertheless, the Shand report pointed to options to contain rate rises: less “aggressive” depreciation charges on assets (now set aside from current revenue); debt funding for part of the cost of long-lived assets to push the cost on to future ratepayers (facilitated by new legislation); charging for water use instead of loading it on rates; and more use of targeted rates.

Councils could do all those and some will do some or all of them. Shand’s other suggestions require central government concessions, including paying rates on state land and buildings, which are highly unlikely.

In fact, the central government is part of the local problem. It loads duties on local councils, which then must charge for them, either directly (in most cases) or through the rates. Council bureaucracies have had to expand, regardless of local attempts at stringency.

That all adds to a sense many have, particularly in business, that local government is over-expanding beyond a strictly local brief. And that is accompanied by grumpiness (only in part justified) about councils’ administration of the Resource Management Act.

Which in turn encourages a sense (mostly unfair) that council officials are second-rate.

Yet the new Local Government Act in 2002 empowered councils to do more, not less — to be more of a government of their local areas and fulfil a brief that goes far beyond the traditional roads, transport and water and encompasses their citizens’ social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing.

That wider brief is beyond most councils because they are too small: we have 85 for a population of 4.2 million. In fact, the whole country is barely more than a local council by big-country standards: the bikesheds principle drives much of our national politics.

Consequently most don’t vote in local elections. What’s the point? Especially in Auckland, allegedly an international city, which offers a mayoral choice between a still learning incumbent and his erratic predecessor after near-farce on the left majority over water pricing.

The good news is that some councils are inventive. In Canterbury three district councils have joined with the regional council and Transit New Zealand to run roads, waste and planning of “development nodes”. Wairarapa’s three small councils cooperate in a range of activities, including a rural fire service, climate protection, social cohesion policies and arts and culture, and have a single district plan. Southland councils have dovetailed their LTCCPs.

This is a sort of amalgamation without amalgamating. The royal commission into Auckland governance could do worse than take a look. And if the idea catches on, who knows, three elections hence you may be keener to vote.