With October’s local government elections looming and electioneering in full swing, the focus is firmly on how mayoral candidates would address local issues. But what about the big picture? How do they see the place of local government in an increasingly complex and challenging environment? Are local bodies expected to provide public services they can no longer afford – for a population whose interest in voting is apathetic to say the least? Patricia Moore reports.
Local Government Magazine invited a cross-section of candidates for the mayoral chain in three of our major metropolitan areas, to step away from the hustings and share their views; some are strong contenders, some are campaign veterans and some are stepping into the ring for the first time. Unfortunately the numbers involved prevent us from including every candidate and, as this issue went to press, nominations were still open. Not all candidates we approached were able to respond, with one even declining the opportunity as campaigning “is quite a time consuming thing for me currently”.
Auckland mayoral candidate Vic Crone believes the biggest issue facing the local government sector is responding to the “phenomenal speed of change we’re seeing on the global stage”. That said, she regards rising growth, future technologies and changing behaviours as amazing opportunities. The downside is that they can put unprepared cities on the back-foot, she says. “Across the globe we’re seeing this in a massive infrastructure deficit.” Local government can prepare for this by being future-savvy and agile enough to navigate this volatility, she says.
So how does she view the relationship between local and central government? “By nature it’s a symbiotic relationship and should be more of a win-win partnership based on respect, trust and collaboration.” Using Auckland as an example she suggests it’s “not a strong productive working relationship – much like putting two competitors in a room to work together.
“I’ve worked closely with central government and regional councils and know they can work extremely well together under leadership that’s focused on outcomes. Importantly, if councils want to lobby government for resources they need to show that they’ve first tried alternatives and can hold up their end of the bargain by delivering effectively.”
Asked how she’d react if, as mayor, she was told something she expected to do was not possible, Vic says the research and cost-benefit analyses should speak loud and clear. “If that means my preferred approach is a no-go, I’ll accept that and look at other options. However, if people are telling me it’s not possible for bureaucratic reasons, I’d definitely be taking a magnifying glass to that process.”
The first committee Vic sat on was the Yellow Pages Alliance Board, overseeing the sale and transition of Yellow Pages from an operational, legal and technical perspective. She learned a number of things from that experience. “Remaining focused on your customers makes major decisions much clearer; also finding common values and purpose across quite different organisations can help unstick difficult issues and decisions. Finally, I learned that taking care of the small details is important, particularly when it involves complex legal and regulatory issues and contracts.”
Vic believes the skill-sets around decision-making tables need to be lifted. “In my experience you’re only as strong as your team and the biggest legacy you leave behind is what you’ve taught them.”
For mayoral candidate Phil Goff many of the issues facing local government in Auckland translate across the rest of the country. “Housing and transport will be major issues for a number of cities as they continue to grow in size and population.” He also cites the expectation that councils achieve greater efficiencies which allow them to do more with less; water quality, and the need to reduce carbon emissions to deal with climate change in line with the agreement made at the 2015 UN Climate Change conference, and the safety and security of our ethnic communities.
“For every single one of these issues, a council’s relationship with central government can make the difference between resolving it or letting it drag on. Councils and government must work together to achieve the best possible outcome or risk spiralling problems.
“The current working relationship between central and local government falls short of what is optimal. There are still examples of blame-shifting and finger-pointing, for example on the reasons for the Auckland housing crisis. On the positive side, better cooperation has been achieved through the establishment of the Auckland Transport Agreement project with the two tiers of government no longer working at odds with each other.”
Achieving one’s goals as mayor is not always easy; how would Phil react to being told something was just not possible – a case of ‘bureaucracy gone mad’? “I’d have done my homework and formulated an expectation so I’d first want to know why it wasn’t possible or was excessively bureaucratic.
“If it’s advice from your CEO you’d want and expect them to be frank in their comments. It’s unwise not to listen to genuine advice tendered to you – and just as unwise to surrender to it without challenging it and getting contestable advice.”
If you’re confident your expectations are well-founded you’d expect council officials to implement them, even if they disagreed with you, he says. “The final decision rests with the elected representative, not the official.”
And as mayor how would Phil handle the turnover of elected representatives – invariably with little or no local government experience? “Some turnover is desirable,” he says. “People with new ideas can refresh council and may bring with them vast experience from other areas. Councillors should be judged not on their newness to the role but on their competence and skills.”
From Chlöe Swarbrick’s perspective, the biggest issue facing the local government sector over the next five years will be “proactively adapting to and planning for the changing world”. Lack of long-term thinking and future proofing puts the sector at the risk of becoming redundant, she says.
The current legislative trend has seen New Zealand’s central government bolster its powers, in turn minimising the autonomy of local government, she says. “As such the working relationship between local and central government is tense.”
So how would she like to see it evolve? She doesn’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for local government across the country, “but local government is best placed to understand the needs of their communities. It makes common and practical sense that local government has greater autonomy and freedom to plan the future of their cities – double handling by central government is not only inefficient but minimises the purpose of having elected council members.”
The solution, she says, is to increase the dialogue, recognising that all sides of the argument want our cities to function at their best. Growing public transparency is also important to Chlöe. “Currently so much of what happens in governance happens without the understanding of the general population which, if adequately informed, would be a substantial and more satisfactory check and balance than the current strain between local and central.”
Chlöe’s first experience of committee work was as a law student representative on the Auckland University Students’ Association. That taught her change comes from recognising differences in perspective, motivation and resources, “and acknowledging the requirement for balance and collectively working for the good of us all”.
She says, as a framework, the recently launched LGNZ 2050 programme is a brilliant tool for inspecting and researching the problems faced by our communities. “It promotes visibility of the depth and breadth of current and future obstacles and in doing so promotes some potential solutions. We need to take this information and construct and commit to genuine plans to place New Zealand’s cities in good stead for these evidently foreseeable issues and opportunities.”
Shared services are another local government initiative Chlöe sees as making “practical sense. We’re faced with increasingly tight resources on the one hand and a growing population and demand on the other. Shared services offer the opportunity for collaboration, creativity and innovation.”
Collaboration among local bodies and with central government will be an important issue in the next five years says Auckland mayoral candidate Mark Thomas. “We need to find and use new funding mechanisms, particularly for infrastructure; we need to process consents more quickly and we generally need a transformation in our approach to customer service.”
The relationship between local and central governments needs more work, he says. “Governments can be hard work at times, but so can local government. A key recommendation of the government’s Rules Reduction Taskforce last year was for government agencies to improve their engagement with the sector.” He says while the relationship between the Auckland Council and government has improved, “we’ve spent most of the past six years locked in battles around funding and the scope of work we undertake. This has limited progress. Councils also need to focus on doing a more consistent and quality job.”
The issue of shared services is also exercising local government and Mark believes among disparate and remote communities there is much to be gained by a shared approach – but it requires a better job with democratic oversight. “The potential cost savings can be significant; since Auckland’s amalgamation Watercare has delivered over $100 million of savings and the retail price of water was able to be cut by an average of 15 percent.” However, he says, at times local government tends to focus more on democratic control issues than better council services. “Local boards and councillors are too removed from control and influence and so services develop which do not always meet the needs of our communities.”
When asked about the creation of more ‘super-cities’ Mark suggests other parts of the country could benefit from mergers but would need to work on a model that best suits the needs of their communities. “A key issue is how to balance regional versus local decision making. This has been a big problem with Auckland’s reforms and I think was a factor in Northland, Hawkes Bay and Wellington rejecting the merger options they recently faced.
“I think there’s a big opportunity with the proposed government law changes for councils to collaborate even further on shared services, then use this as a way to consider, from an operational point of view, whether merging politically would create greater benefits.”
For Lianne Dalziel one of the greatest issues facing local government over the next half decade hinges around subsidiarity: “Decisions being made as close to the ground as possible with centralised decision making preserved only for those issues which can’t be resolved locally.” Governments have merely paid lip service to the principle of subsidiarity over the years, she says.
The NZ Initiative, with its commitment to developing policies that work for all New Zealanders, is doing some excellent work that could lay the foundation for a radical overhaul of the divide between central and local government, says Lianne. “Councils are ideally placed to engage with their communities in a meaningful way, deliver services in partnership with communities and achieve real results.”
She also highlights the need for councils to access modern, data-driven asset management programmes to deliver infrastructure. “Gone are the days of renewals programmes based on rules of thumb.”
As a teenager, Lianne sat on her tennis club board and learned the importance of collective decision making, but it was her experiences in her early 20s, as an elected member of a local union, which brought home the reality that political decisions made in Wellington constrained local decision-making. However, she believes the relationship between local and central government is a good one, “but the fact that local governments across New Zealand oppose the current Local Government Amendment Bill means there is a disconnect. Treasury appears to see local government as a risk to be managed rather than a partner in the governance decisions which make a difference to the resilience of the nation. Resilience is not built from the top down. It’s when grassroots up meets top down, that true resilience can be built. That’s a partnership.”
And, she says, after three years as mayor, she knows the role and is willing to play a part within LGNZ to ensure government sees that collaborative partnerships “offer way more than the command and control legislative straitjacket”.
So has her experience as mayor convinced her amalgamation may be the way of the future? “I’m not convinced it is the way to go. As long as decision making is democratic, shared services and collaborative partnerships are the way to go. We don’t want to create centralised services when we know devolution produces better buy-in and better results.”
Christchurch mayoral candidate John Minto’s first committee experience was on a 1975 anti-apartheid committee in Napier where he learned the importance of listening to everyone before trying to find common ground; he doesn’t pull any punches when asked his views on the current relationship between local and central government.
“Local government is treated in a patronising manner by central government. Local government ministers are generally not senior cabinet ministers and expressions of annoyance are the common response to any plans and programmes. A good example of this is government’s reluctance to fund public transport initiatives compared to their apparent addiction to tarseal. The many years it took government to commit to Auckland’s central city rail loop, even with overwhelming public support, is another example.”
He’d like to see a much more respectful relationship and suggests the way to accomplish this is by a shift in thinking from a representative democracy, where people spend five minutes filling in a ballot paper every three years, to a participatory democracy, where structures enable and encourage genuine participation in decision-making over the full term of a council. “With this type of democratic structure central government would pay a lot more attention to local government.”
He sees a number of issues confronting local government. “Maori representation is a critical one which needs to be addressed as a Treaty of Waitangi obligation.” He believes when local government consults with iwi too often they do so with unelected Maori of their own choosing rather than democratically elected representatives. “This is bad for everyone, politically and culturally.”
Other challenges include pressure to introduce user-pays charges for water; responsible global stewardship of public transport in response to unsustainable energy use and climate change, and improving local body democracy. “Vested interest groups have enormous, anti-democratic influence in closed door meetings with senior council staff and elected representatives. Local communities and their views should be promoted above vested interests.”
And, he says, if shared services are a simple service provision that don’t compromise local democracy in any way, they should be considered. However, “the Auckland super-city example is not encouraging”. So on that note, does he believe there should be wider adoption of the super-city model across the country? “No. The Auckland experience has been that it cost a lot more and has resulted in poorer levels of democratic representation.”
Value for money for rates, as ratepayer expectations of ‘more for less’ rise, is just one of the issues Jo Coughlan sees facing local government over the next few years. Indeed, as a mayoral candidate, she’s got quite a list; funding infrastructure deficit with a growing population and economy; the demarcation line between central and local government responsibilities and funding of social services such as housing; achieving resilience and environmental goals; how local government adds value to growing communities and economies in a competitive marketplace – citing areas such as regional promotion; and balancing competing interests in the planning process – “To name a few.”
Jo sums up the current relationship between local and central governments as “mixed” and suggests there are situations where councils are underutilising people with the connections to improve the situation. “A positive relationship with central government is very important but it’s also important to have the flexibility to focus on practical solutions not party political agendas.”
As far back as secondary school Jo has been involved in committee work; school ball planning, committees related to a growing family, Life Education Trust, and Wellington City Council’s Economic Growth, Events & Arts committee which she chairs. They’ve all demonstrated the importance of listening to people, she says. “Everyone has something to offer. You need to be able to work with people across the spectrum – people who have different views – but still focus on getting a solution. Play the ball, not the person.”
Looking ahead Jo agrees with NZLG president Lawrence Yule’s comments that building a sustainable, environmentally responsible, prosperous and socially inclusive future for New Zealand communities calls for an open conversation about the major long-term shifts communities are facing and how local government prepares for them. “LGNZ’s 2050 programme is a sensible solution that will future-proof New Zealand communities and prepare local government to meet the needs of those communities.”
As for that vexing question of creating more super cities, Jo believes that ultimately it’s about providing value for money for ratepayers. “Amalgamations may, or may not, assist with this. Each circumstance is different and the business case needs to be worked through. Amalgamating just for the sake of it is probably not helpful while resisting the benefits of scale for the provision of some services may not work either. So, horses for courses.”
Across the country the local government sector faces a number of big issues over the next five years, says Wellington mayoral candidate Justin Lester. He highlights funding infrastructure to keep pace with immigration, population growth and increased tourism; ensuring the regions remain strong and attractive to employers and employees; adapting infrastructure to facilitate new technologies in transport and waste; preserving the environment; and planning for sea-level rises that will impact on property and infrastructure in coastal towns and cities.
Justin believes the working relationship between local and central government is strong. “Ultimately we’re pursuing the same goal – to make our communities stronger. Many of the projects we’re working on are co-dependent. But while relationships with agencies such as NZ Transport Agency and NZ Police are good, there are others that could be closer.”
His solution? More secondment of staff from central government agencies into local government bodies and closer alignment in policy development. “Recent initiatives on transport, cycling, housing and creating a pest-free New Zealand are all co-dependent and it makes sense for local government to be involved at an early stage.” He advocates building relationships of trust with ministers and making firm commitments to agreed outcomes. “We’ve seen some good examples in the Wellington Housing Upgrade and Special Housing Accords where outcomes and responsibilities are clearly outlined.”
Elections for local government typically see a turnover of between 33 to 40 percent of members with newcomers having little or no experience in local government. Justin believes this is something Wellington City Council handles well. “The best advice I offer new councillors is to take their time, to listen carefully and seek advice when they need it.”
The wider Wellington region voted against an Auckland-style super-city amalgamation. Instead they’re opting for a regional shared services approach which Justin says is making good gains. “Different options can work for different communities. In the Wairarapa we will likely see a Wairarapa District Council which will merge three existing councils.”
And does he see room for improvement in LGNZ’s 2050 programme? “It’s an excellent start and will need continuing advocacy and action to make sure the big issues – demographic change, urbanisation and stewardship of our natural environment – are addressed. The real focus needs to be on where to from here and how solutions can be created.”
Ten-term Wellington councillor Helene Ritchie has seen a lot of local government action. And, with her hat in the ring for mayor, she’s speaking out on the issues she sees as facing the sector over the next five years. “The biggest challenges are structural, systemic and related to the undermining of the local democratic fabric of Aotearoa New Zealand.”
She’s particularly concerned with “the needless intervention by central government and the potential ‘gutting’ of local government as set out in the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill”. Helene believes the proposed Bill would make “the Local Government Commission more powerful and the minister all powerful”, eventually resulting in a situation whereby the Local Government Commission becomes a Crown Entity, directed by the minister with powers to significantly change government at the local level.
“Housing is another crucial factor, along with climate change, enhancing a degraded environment, and endeavouring, through the tools available, to balance serious inequalities in New Zealand. Central government needs to recognise the key role local government plays in social housing provision.” An educative process and regular meetings would improve the relationship, she says. “Next year is an election year; the government may change, and with that the importance of local democracy and decision-making may change.
“LGNZ’s 2050 programme is good, recognising regional disparities, an aging population, the future of work, climate change and environmental challenges. But disparities in equality of opportunity, access and resource should be added.”
Helene is not an advocate for shared services stating they lead, among other things, to fragmentation of functions, endless restructuring and associated costs. “I would prefer intersectoral cooperation with councils rather than segregation of all activities outside councils and democratic governance.
“There is no evidence of so-called savings or any other evidence-based rationale. Privatisation is made easier with sale and fragmentation of remaining essential services the likely outcome.”
She also firmly opposes super-city type amalgamations and, in 2009, initiated a long debate against the Wellington amalgamation proposal. “I wrote [in the Dominion Post] ‘Wellington, New Zealand’s only vibrant metropolitan centre, is already a super-duper city,’ and added ‘we do not need the kind of upheaval mooted for Auckland, despite pressure to follow Auckland.’ We won [that debate] but what a waste of resources and time. Other cities can learn what not to do from the Auckland super city!”
Rocketing rate increases are the big issue for local government across the country, says Nicola Young, mayoral candidate and current Wellington city councillor. “They will become increasingly unsustainable, especially with an aging population; interest rates are low and many ratepayers are on fixed incomes.” In Wellington, she says, many rates bills have increased by 20 percent over the past four years, with a 5.4 percent increase looming. “Rather than increasing rates to fund questionable projects, local government must exercise greater fiscal discipline.”
Nicola says she sees a place for shared services which can “provide more coherent and effective administration and planning, in areas like transport and water which usually run across territorial boundaries”. But she doesn’t want more elections, preferring to see the relevant councils make such appointments.
Nicola describes the relationship between central and local government as “patchy” but suggests that’s perhaps understandable. “Central government politicians are irritated when councils get involved in issues outside their remit, such as debating the merits of TPP. Such debates are pointless and send an unhelpful message. Local government needs to stick to its core role and perform it cost-effectively.
“Both sides need to understand each other’s role with strong and positive relationships. Central government will listen to local government if it is credible. Local government would have more credibility if term limits were introduced, or single-member wards. This would demonstrate greater accountability, flush out the lifers who rely on name recognition, and improve democracy.”
Nicola’s first committee experience was as head girl, chairing her school council and, during 20 years in the UK, she served on several insurance company boards where the 1992 Cadbury Report, with its focus on raising standards in corporate governance, had been implemented, and an increased awareness of accountability, leadership and effectiveness was taking place. One of the things this taught her was the value of treating people with respect, “so that they know their contribution is valued”. At local government level she says this means running meetings efficiently and on time. “Chairs should be consistent, clear and concise. And it’s important to understand the difference between governance and management. The roles are very different.”
So does she see more super cities in the future? “Wellington is the only city I know and it’s clear we’re not too keen on following the Auckland example.”
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.