Councils to pressure Govt over reforms

JOHN KEY: The Government will not force any council amalgamations.
JOHN KEY: The Government will not force any council amalgamations.

The nation's councils have voted unanimously to lobby the Government over its proposed local government reforms.

Council representatives met in Queenstown yesterday for Local Government New Zealand's annual general meeting.

Seventy-eight councils collectively agreed to pressure the Government to keep the four ''community wellbeings'' enshrined in legislation. They relate to social, financial, cultural and environmental outcomes.

Earlier today Prime Minister John Key said the Government would not force councils to amalgamate under the reform.

''I have made it quite clear the Government will not force any amalgamations but we want to enable communities to be able to genuinely debate whether it is the right move for their community or not,'' he said.

The Government proposes axing the community wellbeings from the Local Government Act to make councils focus on ''core responsibilities'' and reduce the rates burden on constituents.

The law change on amalgamations would shift the presumption in favour of mergers, and if the Local Government Commission recommended a merger it could only be blocked if 10 per cent of affected voters signed a petition asking for a vote.

The vote would be taken across the combined ratepayers of the councils covered by the proposed merger, and would require an overall majority, not a majority in each area as at present.

The Commission would need to be convinced a merger had significant community support before it recommended one go ahead.

Mr Key said the amalgamation and new structure in Auckland had worked well.

''It has reduced bureaucracy, cut costs and the creation of a single voice has given the Auckland Council the capacity to arguably do more,'' Key said.

He said local and central government agreed on many elements of the reforms but conceded there were ''some which are perhaps more contentious''.

''The intention of these reforms is to provide clarity around the role of councils, stronger governance, improved efficiency, and more prudent financial management.''

Key said the first phase of the changes involved refocusing the purpose of local government, introducing financial prudence requirements, strengthening council governance and streamlining council reorganisation.

Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule said the wellbeings provided certainty for councils and helped deliver desirable outcomes to their communities.

If the Government's amendment was introduced, councils feared they would be hamstrung from serving their communities as they did now, or become vulnerable to costly legal challenges.

'' [The proposed reforms] define the purpose more rigidly and run the risk that people are going to take you to court on the basis that 'you shouldn't be doing this'.

''The current system allows councils to do most things, and they do so if their communities want them and are prepared to pay for them.''

Addressing delegates at today's Local Government New Zealand conference, Mr Yule said some aspects of the reforms had councils' backing, such as improving regulation and strengthening the role of mayors.

But councils were concerned about other elements of the reform agenda.  Attempts to refocus the direction of councils ''fundamentally undermines the integrity of the relationship local authorities have with their communities''.

''We will be asking ... that the Government keep the purpose of local government as is.''

Mr Yule also said there was ''a lack of evidence'' that councils' commitment to the community wellbeings had contributed to increasing rates.

Councils routinely declined poor funding proposals, he said, and had done so numerous times in their recent long term plan deliberations.

Legislation was introduced into the House in late May and is currently before a select committee. Submissions close on July 26 and Key said the Government aimed to pass it before the end of the year.

Key said the changes were designed to help keep rates affordable and debt at prudent levels by focusing councils on their core role.

''We are not telling you how to do your jobs, but we would urge you to think carefully about the capacity of your communities during these difficult financial times. I know it's not easy, and it's tempting to think your council is an exception or faces special circumstances, but we all have to face up to making difficult choices.''

The second phase of reforms would look at the framework around central and local government regulatory roles.

Contact Lane Nichols
Metro chief reporter

The Dominion Post