MPs meddling in our councils

GRANT MILLER
Last updated 12:43 03/12/2012

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OPINION: Now and then I get the impression MPs think themselves more important than mayors and councillors.

Perhaps they like to think of local government as a stepping stone to the higher-level decision-making of central government.

There is certainly something condescending in the local government reforms passed by Parliament last week.

Local Government Minister David Carter talks about efficiency and lifting performance.

This is apparently achieved by asking councils to do things "only they can do", and curbing their enthusiasm for "wellbeing".

When MP Nick Smith was leading the charge, he put it like this: "We are rebalancing the New Zealand economy away from the increased public spending and debt of the previous decade. We are building a more competitive and productive economy. This requires that both central and local government improve the efficiency of delivering public services. It is also critical to New Zealand's future that both government and councils take a prudent approach to public debt."

Dr Smith's logic is fair enough, but making gains at ground level is harder than asking everyone to focus.

The predictable response from councils is that all their spending is "core business" or their spending is what their communities want. And imposing simplistic remedies is hardly helpful for councils already running on the smell of an oily rag.

As one who has sat in on Annual Plan meetings in Palmerston North, I would say sectors of the community want their council to spend a great deal more money than it does. Dr Smith is right that the system encourages unrealistic expectations, but the wish list is a fair bit more fanciful than the actual spend.

Other ratepayers call for rate increases to be kept in check, of course.

The job of councillors is to find the right balance.

MPs, apparently, don't rate the job they have been doing. So the "broad mandate" of councils - social, economic, cultural and environmental wellbeing of communities - has been ditched for something bland and narrow.

It's evident from Mr Carter's comments that the Government isn't much pleased when councils pick up balls dropped by central government.

What I resent is MPs deciding for me what type of council I want.

The Government has decreed that I want a penny-pinching council that is not hung up on woolly "wellbeing" ideas. Thanks, I would rather have come to that decision myself and voted for the councillors reflecting my views.

Strangely enough, discussion about hobbling local democracy by limiting the power of elected councillors to make decisions for their communities didn't make it into Mr Carter's press release.

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Advocates of reform have been careful to emphasise the importance of local democracy, but it would surprise me if these feelings were heartfelt.

There is just too much in the sneer from on high for words to that effect to be taken at face value.

One irony of central government's sense of importance is that local government decisions arguably have greater impact on the lives of this nation's citizens.

Water, sewage disposal, street lights, local roads, rubbish collection, parks, sports facilities, meeting places - rates pay for these.

It's not hard to form an argument that ratepayers get better value out of their rates than taxpayers get from their taxes.

Yet some parliamentarians like to think local government could learn a few things by watching how frugal central government is.

I wonder how central government politicians would react if things were the other way around. What if councillors created the framework that MPs had to work within?

"Sorry, you'll have to prove the people of New Zealand are in favour of your asset-sales programme.

"No, you can't carry out all that rash spending on roads - this money should be spent on something important.

"Hey, those deficits you keep on running up are out of order."

I suspect the reforms are mostly Government bluster, but ramifications are inevitable.

It's easy to imagine court battles ahead.

In Palmerston North, sculptures partly funded by ratepayers will surely come under scrutiny.

Council investment in keeping The Square safe or money to foster the arts to add vibrancy might stretch the definition of sticking to one's knitting.

Central government may frown at such fuzzy notions as "community wellbeing", but local politicians are well-placed to make calls on their importance.

They are arguably better-placed than MPs to work out where the gaps are in communities and how holes might best be filled.

Frowns from on high don't make social concerns go away and they don't make the need for local social investment any less pronounced.

* Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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