Think local? Don't be loopy. Follow the money

Minister of Local Government Paula Bennett often sounds like the minister against local government. Too much of this might play into Winston Peters’ hands.

Bennett’s favourite phrase for councils has been “loopy rules”. A group under MP Jacqui Dean hunting them out has received 2000 submissions.

Bennett also says councils must become “efficient and effective”, jointly running services and sharing best practice. If not, Bennett told a National party conference workshop on Saturday, “I am going force that”. Last week she told the councils’ Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) conference “you can’t … continue as you are.”

And, she shouted at the National workshop, she wants “yes” councils, ones that say yes to development.

Grievance at councils was a subtheme at National’s conference. It also came up in an economic plenary session and another workshop.

A few voices spoke up for councils. Far more grumped at risk-averseness, slowness, cost, inconsistency, creation of a climate of uncertainty and confusion and lack of “customer” focus, among a welter of accusations. Some said it was Nationalists’ own fault: able centre-right people should stand for councils and fix them.

No one, except sotto voce in the margins, noted that councils’ “customers” include developers’ neighbours — in fact, all local citizens. There was little recognition that ministers have loaded councils with jobs and complex new legislation without funding, constrained funding for some activities, then attacked them for raising rates — though Bennett did acknowledge “too many legislative rules” and said she would not make new rules to reduce rules.

Integral to the central-local tension is that councils (health boards too) exist at Parliament’s (dis)pleasure, as the Canterbury Regional Council found when the Beehive appointed commissioners.

Through Parliament ministers can tell councils what to do or not do and when and what funds they can raise from what.

This has discouraged local enthusiasm for local control of local affairs. Council elections are in the “why bother” basket: very low voter turnouts. Near-reflex citizens’ resistance to amalgamations is more opposition to outside interference than a desire to participate in local affairs — a sort of negative localism.

On the other side, ministers get frustrated when councils don’t do what they would do if they were directly running them.

LGNZ used to grump back. But recently LGNZ has turned constructive: researched, reasoned argument, recognition of failings and governance programmes to address them and a declared wish to work with the central government to clear roadblocks to improvement.

For example, LGNZ has set up a joint borrowing agency, brought in the Institute of Directors to mentor councillors and surveyed public and business opinion to see where councils need to improve. It is encouraging shared services and developing a risk management agency for assets in conjunction with 30-year infrastructure plans required by the central government (though not of itself). Special economic zones are mooted.

At its conference LGNZ issued a 10-point plan for a more rational revenue system than the present hotchpotch of rates, development and user charges, dividends from trading entities and government grants and subsidies.

Rates don’t respond to changes in the local economy. Governments can turn miserly on grants and subsidies, especially when trying to prove their own fiscal probity. Nick Smith has limited charges for infrastructure and services for new housing areas, which LGNZ wants rethought.

The government doesn’t pay rates on core Crown land. And Parliament has exempted from rates churches and transport, conservation and recreation and some Maori land.

LGNZ wants those exemptions scrapped. Other proposals for a broader revenue base include: proper consultation, cost-benefit analysis and cost-sharing of new duties dumped on councils; simplification of the rates rebate scheme to help more low-income ratepayers; better guidance on the tradeoff of user charges and rates; permission to levy road-user charges, targeted levies and fuel taxes; a share in any “value uplift” from council-assisted economic activity; a share of mineral royalties; and charges on tourists.

LGNZ is also pushing partnership with community and voluntary organisations and private firms to make revenue go further. This has been critical in British councils’ response to heavy cuts in funding.

Money is power. Ministers like power. But if LGNZ keeps building up well-researched cases, the case for power-sharing may grow.

Bennett does give glimpses of a kinder side that might respond. If not, her rhetoric risks turning mayors and councillors grumpy, as in 1999 when overbearing ministers cost National votes.

As some councillors already point, Winston Peters is lurking in the provinces, post-Northland by-election, for just such an opening — as his party’s conference this coming weekend will be keenly aware.