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Opinion: Keeping the local in local government

1 Mar 2023, 12:42 PM

by Kāpiti Coast District Mayor Janet Holborow

Local government matters. It has a direct impact on our tūrangawaewae – where we live, learn, work, play, and socialise. It provides for everyday necessities such as water, street lighting, and roading, and helps connect communities through the provision of parks, pools, and libraries. It’s who you deal with when you want to build, buy, or renovate your property, and when you run a local business. We care for the local environment and the people who live here. We understand our history, deliver for the present, and plan for our communities’ future needs.

But local government as we currently know it is in for a massive upheaval. The progression of the Three Waters reform, and the proposal to move our natural and built environment planning to regional committees through the Resource Management reform – two of our key functions – clearly signals a change to our statutory obligations, our decision making, our funding, our assets, and how we deliver for you – our community. It may not mean that we do less, but instead we’re tasked to do different activities in the future.

With a new prime minister and local government minister, and a general election to occur later this year, we do not know how the plethora of reforms and the Review into the Future for Local Government will progress. While there are some common themes in each that I agree with, you have to question the expense and complexity of additional layers through proposed Regional Planning Committees and a new entity to enable better collaboration between central and local government, as well as four large Water Service Entities which are now law.

While these structures may include both mana whenua and elected member representatives, it will be challenging to have our local voice heard and robust decisions made on local issues. There’s a real risk of losing the local in local democracy. As a long-serving elected representative, I’d like to reinforce the need for strong advocacy for the interests of people who live in our communities and the money injected into local level challenges. 

As much as we can unpick the Review into the Future of Local Government’s Report, He Mata Whāriki, He Matawhānui, in the short timeframe we’ve been given to respond, many of the recommendations I whole-heartedly support while others will need more consideration and bolder solutions.

I acknowledge there’s issues with low voter turnout, low trust of and between local and central government, and three yearly election cycles don’t enable any real change or traction. There’s no denying we need a more joined-up approach to improve social, cultural, economic, and environmental wellbeing for all, and there’s opportunities in economies of scale.

I fully support an increased opportunity for Te Tiriti o Waitangi to be exercised within local government. In Kāpiti, we are incredibly fortunate to have enduring relationships with our district’s three iwi which helps ensure mana whenua are part of our decision making. While some high-level legislation may be required, it shouldn’t be overly prescriptive and needs to provide for how iwi and local authorities’ relationships are developing across the country. If genuine, partnerships will develop at a pace that works best locally and will be enduring. Central government subsidies to support the development of iwi and Council’s capability and capacity will be key to doing this successfully.

I also agree that increased participation in local democracy decision making and changes to local elections are needed. Late last year, Council endorsed the Make It 16 campaign and we’ve introduced Public Forums to make it easier for our community to connect with their elected representatives in an informal way. I also acknowledge local government needs to develop other ways to increase community participation.

But the biggest question I have is how do we deliver for the long-term benefit and wellbeing of our communities in an affordable way? Rates cannot be the only answer for tackling big issues like climate change, managing growth, and ensuring a strong economy delivers for all. A collaborative working relationship with central government to achieve joint outcomes and co-investment opportunities is long overdue.

It’s heartening to see the Report’s recommendations for an equitable, sustainable funding and financing system, including alternative funding sources to rates, and that Government-owned properties should not be exempt from rates. I’d also like to see us treated as an equal partner, where we co-design and co-invest for mutually beneficial outcomes.

It’s also good to see proposed principles for allocating roles and functions for all levels of government. Councils already perform anchor institution and placemaking roles, providing connections between people and the places they share, but there are new roles councils can offer to support on behalf of our local communities. There may even be some roles that central government currently performs that would be more effectively done at a local level such as public health and social housing.

But rather than unfunded mandates from central government, that the Report says should stop, I’d like to see more of our mahi determined by our own community. Instead of a top-down approach, the people who live in and represent the local interests of our communities should drive change, with central government held to account when developing legislative changes that impact local government.

While the Review into the Future of Local Government is not a reform, a fundamental change is very much indicated for local representation, decision making and implementation, with expected changes likely to occur in 4–5 years’ time.

The review is not a local government driven review, yet it could have far-reaching implications for councils and communities like ours across Aotearoa. At a very basic level it could mean the centralisation of services such as libraries and Council implementing things like education networks in the future.

We haven’t been afforded the time to truly delve into what arrangements could work best for Kāpiti and discuss this with you, the people who will be affected most. I am keen, however, for government to make these conversations possible when the Review Panel presents their findings to the Minister for Local Government in June. In the meantime, you can view Council’s submission on our website.