What is local and what is central? The Key government has rephrased this as what is local is central — when it gets in the way of economic development.
In 1841 on its second day the Legislative Council debated a bill to regularise local government. A Wellington council had been set up before the Treaty of Waitangi. A bottom-up, uncontrolled local initiative had to be reined it for national colonial rule to work.
It is this bottom-up, uncontrolled nature of local government that irritates the cabinet now.
It thinks councils overspend on projects that are not “core” because councillors misinterpret their mandate from low voter turnouts and/or because wily, unelected chief executives faze councillors.
That lifts rates — which cuts business profits and so stymies economic development — and/or gets councils too far into debt, which ministers fear may require a bailout. Actually no law requires that; the law requires a special rate. No councils are insolvent. And much of the rise in rates and debt have gone on government-mandated fixing of the infrastructure deficit from the 1980s and 1990s.
Ministers think councils take far too long on resource consents, too readily listen to opponents of economic development and don’t make it easy to build cheap houses.
So there are time limits on resource consent processes. The Environmental Protection Authority consents nationally significant projects (not legally defined) and regional important projects are to get special treatment, too. Ministers are pressing for more land to be zoned residential.
Ministers think too much time goes on plans and consulting on them. They truncated hearings on Auckland’s unitary plan and took over the appointment of commissioners to hear appeals. They want, in legislation to come, a single plan for every council and to inject regional priorities into it.
This, some analysts of local government think, will weaken district councils and add to pressure to move to unitary region-based councils, as Auckland now is.
Ministers have spun out the term of the commissioners running the Canterbury Regional Council and dismissed Christchurch City Council bids to regain more of the administration of its city. Some in Christchurch interpret that (with some reason) as pressure for a unitary authority for the region.
Wellington councils have been in a ferment over how to respond to Auckland and, potentially, Christchurch. The regional council wants a two-tier supercity similar to Auckland, with a super council and delegated city councils. Wellington city leans towards a one-level arrangement, maybe without Wairarapa and Kapiti.
The Beehive’s policy direction is towards the centre: centralised regions and councils generally more under the cabinet’s thumb. There is ministerial power to override decisions on aquaculture. There are more national policy statements (guidance to councils to prod them towards national consistency) and national environmental standards (to force consistency).
Other moves: a shift of Transport Agency funding from local to state roads, super-regulators of building and standardised performance measures for infrastructure.
All this supervision for bodies which spend about 3.5 per cent of GDP, around 10 per cent of all government spending. In 1930 it was about half.
So what? New Zealand is 4.4 million people, about the size of decent city. Why have any “government” below the national government? Many councils are too small to carry out effectively the sophisticated activities modern conditions and the modern economy require.
Fair enough. But New Zealand is already the most centralised jurisdiction in the developed world. That overlooks a rule of thumb that says decisions are best made at the relevant level: localities should logically decide issues which affect only the locality. Switzerland has 3000 local authorities, 26 cantons and a central government and lots of community involvement and decision-making — and is rich.
It comes to a question of democracy. New Zealand increasingly seems to think that happens only in Parliament and the Beehive.
* Last month I misspelt David Parker as David Carter. Apologies to both.