The agenda behind local government reform

CHANGES: Rodney Hide's local government agenda is almost unchanged.
CHANGES: Rodney Hide's local government agenda is almost unchanged.

The Government is pitching its latest local government reform package as a way of reducing council debt, keeping rates down and making local government more efficient.

This is extremely clever, as who among us would not want to keep our rates down, reduce council debt and reign in the exorbitant salaries so many local government chief executives earn?

But if you read the fine print of the proposed reforms, it's clear that there is another, quite different agenda at work, and New Zealanders should be clear about what that is.

The agenda was developed by former local government minister Rodney Hide, and has three general aims:

First, to shrink local democracy by encouraging amalgamations, reducing the number of councils, narrowing the scope of local government, and handing as many council functions as possible to corporate boards, or council-controlled organisations, as they are known, as has happened in the Auckland super-city.

Second, to take away the autonomy of local government, by limiting a council's ability to generate revenue, restricting its functions to certain core activities that central government will prescribe, and giving central government the power to direct how local government operates.

Third, forcing councils to contract out or privatise as many of their functions as possible, by requiring councils to deliver all their services "at the least possible cost to households and businesses", and stipulating that councils should only carry out "public" services that cannot be provided by the private sector.

Mr Hide was quite upfront about this agenda when he was local government minister. This is not surprising, given that it is almost identical to ACT's local government policy - namely, that councils should be restricted to a small number of core functions, and required to progressively shed their ownership of commercial activities to the private sector. Even roads and piped water, according to ACT policy, should be supplied on a fully commercial basis.

More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the Government is implementing Mr Hide's local government agenda almost unchanged.

Sure, it has dressed it up in a more appealing language, and is presenting its reform package as a way of keeping rates down and making local government more efficient, but it is the same agenda, even so.

The reforms will remove the autonomy and "power of general competence" from local authorities, and put local government well and truly under the thumb of central government, which will be able to dictate how much money councils can raise from rates, and what functions and services councils are allowed to provide.

In doing so, I predict it will hobble and weaken local government and have all sorts of unintended consequences for the way our communities are run.

Under present legislation, for example, local government is required to pay half of any new public transport initiative, such as upgrading rail networks. Under the proposed rating caps, it will be almost impossible for local governments to fund half of any new - or even existing - public transport initiatives, or to embark on major upgrades of sewerage, water or other infrastructure.

Presumably, the Government's intention is to force local government to go to the private sector to fund infrastructure upgrades and any other major projects.

While at first glance, the idea of limiting councils' ability to generate revenue and stipulating that its expenditure growth should rise no faster than inflation and population growth looks appealing, a quick look at what has happened in places like Colorado, where this policy has been implemented, shows just how flawed it is.

Faced with a revenue shortfall of 10 per cent of its budget, Colorado Springs has turned off one-third of its street lights, slashed its parks budget by 75 per cent, and closed public toilets and several swimming pools.

Buses no longer run in the evenings and at weekends, grass in the city is mown monthly, instead of weekly, and taxi drivers double as amateur police because police patrols have been cut.

IS THIS what we want to see in our towns and cities? It's clear that the legislation that will be introduced in May is just the first phase of the Government's reforms, and that more radical changes are on the way.

A review of local government regulation and "the efficiency of local government provision" is taking place, while a local government efficiency taskforce will examine how to streamline and reduce the costs of local government.

In a paper last year, Mr Hide floated the idea of getting rid of regional councils entirely, and progressively handing over most of their regulatory functions to the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency.

I predict that the review of local government regulatory functions will recommend that many, perhaps most, of local government's regulatory functions be taken over by the Environment Protection Agency.

Ironically, in a paper that Mr Hide released last year entitled Smarter Government, Stronger Communities, it noted that local government is a key arm of New Zealand's system of government. It not only gives citizens a say in decision-making, but it is part of the system of checks and balances of power."

It observes "that there is little to stop central government from seeing local government as an agent of national interests and imposing this view through legislation".

This is exactly what the proposed reforms are designed to do. They will make local government completely subservient to central government, and force it to carry out the Government's ideological agenda.

This is a real concern in our democracy, where there are already few checks and balances against the potential abuse of executive power. We are one of the few democracies without a written constitution, or a second chamber. So we should not take moves to undermine and weaken local government lightly.

Now that the push is on to impose a super-city upon the Wellington region, we shouldn't be duped, either, into believing that Wellington will be far better off with one large super-council.

While there is a strong case for more regional integration of services such as water and transport, international research shows that the larger councils are, the further they are removed from their constituents, the less connected people feel with their councils, and the less effective they become.

PriceWaterhouseCooper admitted this in a review of governance it carried out for the Wellington Mayoral Forum.

When a local council gets too large, it becomes more bureaucratic, it noted, and this can result in a reduced democratic accountability and a reduced sense of place among citizens.

There is a real risk, in other words, that small communities will be swallowed up in a super-city and will lose their voice, and that we will end up with a large, inaccessible organisation that is too distanced from the communities it represents to effectively represent them: that is, effectively provincial government, not local government.

There is a real risk, in other words, that we could end up with something that is more like a super-tanker than a super-city.

It is worth noting, too, that in many parts of the world, local government is heading in the opposite direction, towards smaller councils that are directly connected to their local communities, because of a growing recognition that local government works best when it is genuinely local, in touch with its local community, is able to function as a genuine grass roots democracy rather than a hierarchical, top-down organisation, and when people are able to have a real say in how their community is run.

Finally, the main argument that has been advanced in favour of a Wellington super-city is that central government would listen to us more if the region spoke with one voice. The Auckland experience, where the Government has ignored almost every request of the new super-city, shows how specious this argument is.

Sue Kedgley is a former Wellington city councillor and a former Green MP.

The Dominion Post