Magazine article New Zealand Management

Politics : Local Grumbles A[euro]" National Liability?

Magazine article New Zealand Management

Politics : Local Grumbles A[euro]" National Liability?

Article excerpt

Byline: Colin James

How local is local? How much governing should local government do? Rodney Hide has strong ideas on both. But will he carry the cabinet?

A fashionable 1990sa[euro] theory was that decisions and actions should be taken, as far as practicable, at the level nearest those affected. Government at a national level would deal with something affecting everyone in a country. Local or regional councils would deal with things primarily affecting people in a locality.

In New Zealand the result was 2002 legislation giving local and regional councils a a[euro]power of general competencea[euro] and responsibility for the economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing of their communities. It changed councilsa[euro] brief from a prescribed list of permitted actions to permission to do anything not proscribed.

In fact, not much has changed, except that rates have gone up and ratepayers periodically grumble. Hide backs the grumblers.

There are two governmental reasons why rates go up. One stems from what councils decide to do and how efficiently they do it; the other stems from what Parliament tells councils they must do, for which the central government does not always supply enough funds.

So councils have had to meet higher water supply quality standards. In the wake of the leaky buildings scandal, they have had to apply higher building inspection standards, on pain of liability if they muck up and building owners want redress.

National ministers are sympathetic. Environment Minister Nick Smith has pushed back the water quality deadline. A review of the Building Act is likely to ease councilsa[euro] burden.

But Hide, who is Minister of Local Government, set out to go much further. He put up a cabinet paper in early April (supported by speeches in June) setting up a review he characterised as a[euro]guided by the principles that local government should operate within a defined fiscal envelope, councils should focus on core activities and decision-making should be clear, transparent and accountablea[euro].

His aim was simpler long-term plans so people can relate to them, financial strategies to limit rates, debt and spending, and to prioritise spending in place of a a[euro]wishlista[euro], pre-election fiscal updates, a less costly service performance reporting system and an option for ratepayers at election time to a[euro]tick a box and thereby control council spending to, say, the rate of inflationa[euro].

He thinks many council CEOs in effect run their councils and has mused on giving mayors executive powers to counter them. …

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