Mayors rally PM to create social welfare shake-up

Far North District Council mayor John Carter is working together with the mayors of Gisborne and Rotorua on the plan.
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Far North District Council mayor John Carter is working together with the mayors of Gisborne and Rotorua on the plan.

Three mayors are lobbying the Government to create one of the biggest shake-ups to the social welfare system since the 1930s. 

The mayors from the Far North, Gisborne and Rotorua propose to set up special "demarcation zones" to eradicate intergenerational poverty and social problems.

It is proposed that welfare, health, education, employment and policing would be refocused and be overseen by the local communities to deal with the social problems in the three areas.

Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick said national rules were not working for some communities.
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick said national rules were not working for some communities.

Far North District Mayor John Carter said despite the efforts of a range of individuals and agencies, sub-cultures of poverty had evolved throughout New Zealand.

READ MORE: John Carter - 'They live from hand to mouth'

"Our failure to deal with entrenched poverty means we are turning our young people into unskilled dependents and, in some cases drug addicts, gang members and criminals," said Carter. 

"I'm especially concerned that our grandparents have shouldered so much responsibility for supporting some of our most difficult individuals and families. But time is running out to find an alternative, because that generation will largely be gone within a decade."

He said that he, Gisborne District Mayor Meng Foon and Rotorua District Mayor Steve Chadwick had been challenged by the Government to come up with alternative solutions to ingrained poverty in their communities.

The idea was the result of the TacklingPovertyNZ​ project - a series of one-day workshops held across the country, initiated by public policy think thank, the McGuinness Institute.

Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon said the proposal was still in its infancy.
GISBORNE HERALD

Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon said the proposal was still in its infancy.

The paper detailing the demarcation zone proposal was sent to Prime Minister Bill English on December 21, 2016.

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"We all understand the legal and financial ramifications of a proposal like this, but we also see the cost that intergenerational poverty has. This is everyone's problem and we need to start talking about real solutions," he said. 

Northland MP Winston Peters said he had not been approached by Carter to pledge his support for the plan.

"The Government has not taken this seriously for a long time," he said. 

Peters added that the Government's focus on building up the economy in big cities, like Auckland, over the years had caused the rural economy across the country to be "seriously neglected".

"This is quite a frustration in the provinces that have a very big export wealth, but they're not recognised as such."

But he said the approach taken by the three mayors would not change that. 

"What they're asking for is the ability to organise the welfare system themselves, but if you don't have a top-down economic approach to change the economic settings, nothing this program will do can help in a significant way.

"If you look at what's being called for, why have they avoided the most fundamental thing, the change in economy."

Peters added that the mayors had "written to the wrong man", referring to Prime Minister Bill English, who he said had "done nothing to change" the rural economy in eight years.

WHAT ARE DEMARCATION ZONES?

The zones will "isolate and separate" the areas in the Far North, Gisborne district and Rotorua from central governance.

Although the idea was still in its infancy, the mayors proposed that the zones would be "guided by a channel captain or a group of local champions".

It was proposed that they would request full details of the services government departments supply to each zone, and would re-focus them on plans tailored to individuals and families living there.

According to the plan, the mayors said "mechanisms of both economic and social governance will need to be fully decentralised to ensure the system can be responsive to the needs of the communities. 

"The current system works to maintain the status quo, keeping people in poverty and spreading it like a virus."

NATIONAL TOOLS 'INAPPROPRIATE'

Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said local communities "best know what their challenges are and how to tackle them".

"However, a lack of financial and human resources means communities are hamstrung and cannot turn local knowledge into local solutions."

She said there are many good programmes tackling poverty, but these often apply national tools and measures inappropriate for complex local problems.

"The overseas development community accepts that top-down solutions applied by successive governments are significantly less effective in tackling poverty than bottom-up, community-driven approaches.

"Community leadership is needed to make the difference in our communities and we are prepared to give the idea a go if central government partners with us and ensure adequate resourcing to really give the concept legs.

'RADICAL IDEAS'

The mayors have proposed the following ideas for discussion, but said they would need to be explored and evaluated before they are implemented.

* Implement a system to ensure that young people's experience with police is the beginning of a positive lifelong relationship. This would include police, in partnership with experts, teaching courses at schools such as the road code, defensive driving, first aid and basic car mechanics. The idea proposes that these programmes form part of NCEA level 2.

* Enabling young people to be exposed to academic study while remaining in their home towns. This includes basic university courses being taught extra-murally at secondary schools, or through Skype. 

* Remove licences for operating pokies and running bottles stores. This means no new licences would be made available. 

* Removing retailing licences from large retailers to enable small business to flourish.

* People on benefits could support their community by helping or visiting old people's homes, painting public buildings, planting a public vegetable garden, teaching elderly tech skills and provide transport.

* Place free sanitary product dispensers in all schools' female bathrooms, as they are often one of the first products to removed from shopping lists when budgets are tight. 

*Provide a fast-track legal system for seasonal workers and tourists who are required to stay in a town due to relatively minor offences.

* Invite banks to provide people to consolidate debt under one loan so that people are not vulnerable to high interest rates and credit card fees.

* Establish a check list for emergency housing, ensuring these houses are close to schools, of adequate quality and well-resourced for families. The idea is to minimise disruption for children's schooling and social relationships.

* Invite major employers into schools to explain career paths, employer expectations and ideally to set up work experience programmes.

* Have doctors regularly visit all preschools in the area to assess children's health.

* Employ school bus drivers to drive an extra circuit during the day to enable otherwise geographically isolated adults to get into town and back.

* Create a local card that enables free filling of prescriptions from any chemist. There were situations where parents did not fill prescriptions because of the $5.00 fee, or because families moved around a lot and faced obstacles to free access.

* Allow the demarcation zone governance board access to all data for decision making and longitudinal research.

* Allow the board to set local priorities and targets for investment decisions around resource allocation. 

 - Stuff

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