Politicians talk about keeping it local

We asked the spokespeople from a number of political parties to share their views on the wider local government sector and changes it faces.

The order they appear in below was determined by pulling names from a hat.

Labour spokesman Su'a William Sio

Local government is the foundation of a rich and vibrant democracy. Many of the most important decisions in people's lives are made in their local town hall, not in the Beehive. That's how it should be.

Labour believes in a bottom up, not top down approach and a democratically-elected council is best placed to make the right decisions for our regions, communities and their peoples.

That's why Labour supports a partnership approach with local government. Local governments are uniquely placed to understand the social, economic, environmental and cultural needs of their communities, what were known as the four well-beings.

National has scrapped these four priorities and in doing so has ridden rough-shod over the powers of local communities. Councils and their communities should have the right to determine what services are provided in their areas. Labour will restore these priorities.

National has also undermined the work of mayors and councillors by centralising decision making and giving their ministers powers to overrule decisions on aquaculture, housing and environmental standards.

Labour expects good economic management from our local councils. Fiscal responsibility is a hallmark of Labour's approach to governing and the same applies to local authorities. They need to be prudent and the impact of spending on rates must be considered. However, the need for prudence mustn't be an excuse to cut services.

There has rightly been a huge public backlash against excessive wages for chief executives. Councils must be mindful of how large pay rises in tough economic times look to their ratepayers.

Ratepayers are busy people and it should be made as easy as possible for them to assess their council's performance ahead of election time.

However, Labour questions the publication of league table-like accounts for local authorities. Every local council is different. How can you compare South Waikato with Queenstown? Or Wellington with Wanganui?

They have different  problems and different priorities. Some are rich, some are poor, some are rural and some urban. This is reflected in the different services they are required to provide and the huge variance in rates that a charged to homeowners based on the value on their properties.

Labour will work with local councils to ensure they are efficient and effective in meeting communities' expectations for better services and new infrastructure. Any borrowing for long term projects must be fiscally responsible so future generations don't have to pay for poor decisions.

Green Party spokeswoman Eugenie Sage

The Green vision of local government is that councils understand and are responsive to the diverse needs of the communities they serve, that local democracy thrives and people are empowered to take part in decision-making.

The National Government is moving in the opposite direction, marginalising local government through law changes (to the RMA and Local Government Act) that centralise power and increase Ministerial interference at the expense of local decision making. National has sought to dominate rather than engage with, local government.

National's rationale for changes has focused on criticism of council debt levels, and a misguided obsession with "core services" without clearly defining what these are.

In 2012, the Auditor General's office scrutinised all of local government's long term plans (LTPs) and financial strategies. The LTPs give an insight into the position and future intentions of local government.

Rather than finding a problem with financial management the Office found that councils overall were responding to their communities' needs in a responsible manner.

The Auditor-General's conclusions highlight the ideologically driven nature of National's 'Be Better Local Government' changes and underscore the flimsiness of National's arguments.

National is promoting major ad hoc change in the structure and organisation of local government  by changing the law around council re-organisation and amalgamation proposals. 

It is allowing the Auckland unitary model with its big super council and weak local boards to be rolled out elsewhere in NZ. Current law changes provide the tool to extinguish many of our competent local councils and centralise power at the regional level.

The changes have a strong privatisation thrust eg by making it mandatory for local authorities after each election to review the costs effectiveness of the council continuing to provide infrastructure, services and regulatory functions and requiring them to consider a council controlled organisation or some other person or agency (eg private company) providing these services.

The Green Party would reinstate the promotion of social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing as the purpose of local government. Its removal from the Local Government Act and the narrowing of councils' purpose was strongly opposed by local authorities.

For the Green Party 'Better Local Government" would involve a new partnership between central and local government and communities being able to take their power back.

In Christchurch for example, the National Government has had a dominant and oppressive influence on decision-making  through CERA's ongoing  "emergency" powers. The City Council and the public need a greater say in the rebuild.

This includes potentially renegotiating the impossible deal the Government negotiated with the previous Council for expensive super-sized anchor projects that don't really benefit the everyday families.

The City Council is struggling with its budget. It's time for the Government to stop pushing its pricey agenda, and instead work to rebuild a resilient city that best works for all.

While Christchurch is a special case, it demonstrates that the National Government wants to push its own agenda, including asset sales, rather than fostering local democracy.

A partnership model would involve cost sharing when central government increases responsibilities or functions for local government, and a wider variety of funding and borrowing options (eg regional fuel tax) to provide local activities and services.

Local Government Minister Paula Bennett

There are few property owners who don't take a keen interest in council spending as they contemplate their rates but local government reform is not usually top of peoples' minds.

Yet local government reform is behind New Zealand's good progress in making local councils more accountable and ensuring that they're lifting their financial performance.

There's been a big improvement in the past three years on rate rises. The average increase in rates per resident in 2012 was three per cent compared with 8.6 per cent in 2007.

New financial prudence benchmarks for local government mean greater transparency of councils' finances.

From October this year councils will provide details in their annual reports on affordability, sustainability and predictability of their finances.

Councils now have to provide information so ratepayers can judge how their council is performing in comparison against a set of financial measures and against other councils.

I expect that including these benchmarks in council long-term plans will help councils and communities make better financial decisions.

Law changes three years ago also require councils to report on their core services of roads, water and sewerage.

A temptation for any local authority when faced with demand for better services and keeping rates low is to fund those services from debt. 

It is worth noting that most New Zealand councils have prudent debt levels. As would be expected, councils in high growth areas have borrowed to provide the infrastructure and services their communities need. 

However there are cases where high debt levels are a concern.

However keeping rates and debt levels low is not always an indicator of good financial management by a council.

Councils need to invest to maintain core infrastructure which delivers critical services to their communities. Low rates and debt may indicate that core infrastructure is being neglected.

The Local Government Bill currently before Parliament will require councils to include in their long-term plans a 30 year infrastructure strategy. This will help to identify any councils that are neglecting their core infrastructure in a short-sighted attempt to keep rates and debt down.

The Bill will also require councils to disclose more information about their rating bases, to improve housing affordability, to remove unnecessary duplication in the planning cycle and to lower council meeting costs by introducing virtual meetings for elected members.

New Zealand's local government system is held in high regard by independent agencies.  I am confident that the changes the Government is making through the Better Local Government reforms will improve council financial management even more.