Councils around the country, including in the Waikato, are lining up to fight a central government bill they say will take the local out of local government.
The Waikato Regional Council is calling for changes to the new local government bill to help ensure the sound management of water and protect local democracy, a call echoed by councils around the country.
In the south, where he has been backed by neighbouring mayors, forthright Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt has dubbed the bill the “Crushing of Local Government Democracy and Seizing Control of Their Assets Bill”.
On Saturday, the Invercargill City Council and Mayor Shadbolt called on Southland councils and members of parliament to stand up for democracy by opposing the Better Local Services Bill, more technically known as the the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill (No 2) 2016.
Meanwhile, the councils representative body, Local Government NZ, said the proposals to reform the Local Government Act had the potential to threaten local democracy and the ongoing sustainability of some councils.
In its submission on the bill, the Waikato Regional Council said the bill failed to carry forward provisions in current law that encourage handling flooding and water management issues on a whole-of-catchment basis.
“It is not possible to effectively manage water allocation, water quality, flood risk and other catchment issues unless a regional council or unitary authority has the ability to manage whole catchments,” the submission said.
“There are many examples internationally of the problems that can arise if more than one jurisdiction has responsibility for management of a major river system.”
Holistic catchment management of water bodies is also a “very important principle” for iwi and Maori and this was reflected in many Treaty of Waitangi settlement arrangements, the submission added.
The regional council also called for the retention of current law that says local government reorganisation proposals must have “demonstrable community support”. It disagreed with the bill’s proposal for “the likelihood of significant community opposition” to become the focus of considerations by the Local Government Commission.
It said public polls were useful in helping decide on reorganisation proposals but warned they shouldn’t be the final part of the decision-making process. “Public polls can be strongly influenced by vested interests, it can be difficult ensuring that people fully understand the implications of decisions, and polls may not reflect the needs of future generations.”
Poll results should therefore be considered alongside “any other available evidence of community support”.
The submission also noted extensive efforts underway through the Waikato Mayoral Forum and other steps to improve council service delivery and infrastructure provision in the region.
It said the bill should recognise this type of work and ensure that existing initiatives “are not unnecessarily compromised by changes made through Local Government Commission processes”.
All councils’ position
On behalf of councils nationwide, Local Government NZ (LGNZ) argued some changes proposed in the Bill would undermine local democracy by diminishing the decision-making ability of locally elected representatives – and as such reduce the ability of communities to have their say on important local and regional matters.
At its annual conference last week 97% of LGNZ members voted in favour of a remit calling for vigorous opposition to any measure in the Bill that directly or indirectly removed the requirement for community consultation, demonstrable community support and direct local authority involvement in reorganisation investigations and local decision-making of councils or their assets.
LGNZ President Lawrence Yule said of particular concern to the local government sector were provisions in the Bill to allow the Local Government Commission to create Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs) without seeking the agreement of councils or the community.
“We haven’t got a problem with CCOs, they are quite a common thing, but their creation is a matter for a council,” Yule said.
“If the commission is going to be given the power to do this directly and come in and create a CCO to manage a community’s assets without a council’s agreement or a community poll, then we do not regard that as democratic. We are not against CCOs, we are against their creation without council and community input.”
There is a concern within the sector that the imposed creation of CCOs could strip rural and provincial councils especially of any significant decision-making power.
“For many councils their asset base is in two areas, roads and the three waters, and what we are concerned about is the removal of local community oversight of local assets.”
“LGNZ’s bottom line is that either council or community approval should be required before major activities are removed from the direct control of the local authority,” Yule said.
Yule said the sector was heartened when Minister of Local Government Hon. Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga indicated that following strong representations from LGNZ and its members that he would write to the select committee considering the bill, the Local Government and Environment Select Committee, to invite it to work with LGNZ to work through the issues together.