Councils 'fill vacuum' in non-core areas
New Zealand councils have sent the Government a clear message - to retain their responsibility for environmental, social, cultural and economic wellbeing in the Local Government Act.
Prime Minister John Key opened the Local Government New Zealand annual conference in Queenstown yesterday by speaking about government priorities, including the Christchurch recovery, to the 570 delegates.
But it was proposed changes to the Local Government Act which spurred the strongest reaction from the local-body politicians.
Group president Lawrence Yule said the unanimous agreement at its annual meeting on Sunday was that existing law enabled councils to add most value to communities.
“Councils have been criticised by the Government for supposedly working in areas that are not core. Yet most of these activities are picked up because of the failure of central government and the private sector to deliver them."
The majority of council activity and spending was on water, roading and similar activities and the responsibilities for environmental, social, cultural and economic wellbeing, known as the four wellbeings, were not putting cost pressures on councils, he said.
“The wellbeings provide clarity. If they are removed, councils will be open to politically motivated challenges regarding their activities, which will cost millions. The lawyers will be the winners. . .."
The current legislation worked well and, although councils would have differing views on aspects of the bill, feelings about proposed changes to the purpose of local government were strong, he said.
In her welcome, Queenstown Lakes Mayor Vanessa van Uden said local government was at a crossroads. "We can do it better, smarter, faster if we are just allowed to."
Given the amount of dirty laundry being aired in public, there was a danger local politicians could be perceived by the public as a "whole layer of bureaucracy without relevance or accountability", she said. "All that serves to do is shatter our integrity as community bodies and weaken our position."
Although there were issues to work through, van Uden said improving the conduit between local and central government had to be a priority.
"There's no point sitting moaning about something. I think what you have to do is accept there's an issue and find a solution to the problems."
Local Government Minister David Carter said the bill was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce a programme which "reaps lasting rewards".
- © Fairfax NZ News
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