OPINION: Given the wave of discontent rippling around the country at the level of rates increases, the Government's "Better Local Government" reforms will be warmly welcomed by many.
The timing for the shake-up, which is designed to ensure councils concentrate on their traditional roles and rein in rates and debt, could not be better.
The most obvious reason is the groundswell of anger in communities disillusioned at what they see as a refusal by councils to tighten their belts in tough times. It also comes at a time when many businesses are having to do just that, and the flow-on effects are felt by many workers and families.
That anger manifested itself most strongly in Kaipara and Christchurch where their chief executives had been offered increases that ratepayers regarded as obscene.
In New Plymouth there were similar scenes of protest. More than 1500 vented their displeasure at the council in an on-line survey, and nearly 300 protested outside the council building.
If ever the time was right for reform – and there were several signs that the present rating method may need a major tweak at the very least – that time was right now.
Perhaps it was not coincidental that Prime Minister John Key decided the time was right for him and Local Government Minister Nick Smith to announce the public overhaul of council activities.
After all, Mr Key has found the going hard in recent months with the state asset partial sales and the proposed Crafar farm sale to Chinese interests driving his popularity to a lower level than he is used to.
Cynics would also point out that his moves to rein in council debts, salaries and rate increases is something that new Labour leader David Shearer would struggle to oppose.
Mr Shearer this week gave his first major speech since his promotion, and the jury is firmly out on the success, or otherwise, of his vision.
The reforms will prove very popular with mainstream New Zealand and they can't come quickly enough for many.
They will particularly welcome Dr Smith's scrapping of the wide-ranging changes of the 2002 Act that made councils responsible for the "social, economic, cultural and environmental well-being of their communities".
Conversely, many community groups that quietly go about doing extraordinary things in their community with minimal council funding may well lament the change as their main funding stream is cut off.
Taranaki's three district councils, along with the rest of their colleagues, will now have to focus on "providing good-quality local infrastructure, public services and regulatory functions at the least possible costs to households and business".
In other words, it's back to basics for councils, and for the majority of ratepayers that's good news, as long as it produces some real reductions in rates and an end to what many see as unsustainable rate increases.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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