Community engagement will remain centre-stage as the Local Government Commission continues to work through options for local government reorganisation.
Dr Suzanne Doig, Chief Executive, Local Government Commission
My first week in the role as chief executive officer of the Local Government Commission in late September last year coincided with a Commission community engagement programme in Auckland. This was an information gathering exercise in response to reorganisation applications for unitary councils lodged by the Northern Action Group in North Rodney and Our Waiheke on Waiheke Island.
Staff and commissioners were holding a series of drop-in centre events and public meetings in Rodney and on Waiheke Island to hear from as many people as possible their views of local government in Auckland.
It was a fitting introduction. For much of the latter half of 2016 and looking ahead through this year, community engagement has been, and will be, at the forefront of the Commission’s work programme as it progresses the applications before it, and responds to any future opportunities to assist in the development and practice of good local government.
On a personal note it was both salutary and rewarding to hear directly people’s most pressing frustrations or what they found good about their local government arrangements; and an important exposure to the potential impact of the Commission’s work on people’s lives.
The Commission worked hard to create conditions in which those who wished to voice an opinion on sometimes contentious issues felt able to do so. It was gratifying then to emerge, in positive media reports and in-person feedback, from that initial phase of engagement – held over six days between North Rodney, Kumeu and Waiheke Island – with its reputation as an honest and fair broker of process enhanced.
Reorganisations and community engagement
The prescriptive processes for local government reorganisation set down in Schedule 3 of the Local Government Act 2002 (LGA) require public consultation at critical junctures. But they also allow for the Commission to undertake additional engagement and investigation, where it feels this might facilitate matters.
Between late September and December in Auckland, the Local Government Commission heard views and information from the general public, from iwi, Auckland Council and a range of other interested parties. These inputs, along with others, will assist the Commission in coming to a view, as required by Schedule 3 of the LGA, on “the reasonably practicable options’’ for local government in Auckland.
One of these options is always the status quo and if the Commission determines this to be its preferred option, the process stops. If it believes a different structure would better promote good local government, it would identify this, develop a draft proposal, and call for submissions on it.
The Auckland engagement programme was modelled on the Commission’s successful earlier work in the Wairarapa and on the West Coast.
In June and July 2016, it had conducted a community engagement programme on local government options for the Wairarapa district. This showed that of those who responded to a Commission survey, online and by mail, and a parallel independent telephone survey, a majority believed their three district councils would be more effective if joined into a single district council; they also wanted to remain part of the Wellington region.
This year, the Commission will advance the detail of this option, work with the councils and community on it, and give further consideration of a formal relationship between a prospective Wairarapa District Council and the Greater Wellington Regional Council. We are aiming to have a final proposal – and, if required, a poll on it – by the end of 2017.
On the West Coast, following receipt of a reorganisation application asking it to look at local government arrangements, the Commission also engaged with the community. Held in June and early July, the programme was designed to gauge the level of community support for change on the Coast. Taken overall, the results indicated there was a sufficient level of support for continuing the reorganisation process. In February, the Commission will invite alternative applications – other suggestions and proposals for local government change on the West Coast.
As the Commission begins to investigate reorganisation applications, it often becomes apparent that structural change may not be the only, or the best, way to achieve good practice and efficiency gains.
To this end, in the wider Wellington area, technical reports on transport, water, economic development and spatial planning for the region were completed in 2016. These can be read at www.lgc.govt.nz, along with an indicative business case analysis for transport-related options.
In parallel with the West Coast reorganisation application, the Commission worked with the West Coast Mayoral and Chair Forum on two regional efficiency initiatives: shared Resource Management Act planning processes and regional transport arrangements. Consultants, funded by the Commission, prepared reports which will soon be presented to the West Coast councils: the next step is for the mayors and chair, and the Commission, to make decisions on what – if any – options in these two areas to investigate further.
In Northland, the Commission worked with councils on their shared services work programme. The Commission delivered two reports on the state of water assets and ICT architecture in the region. These were presented to the Northland Chief Executives Forum in September. The chief executives are considering the reports and their next steps.
In 2017 we expect work on the existing reorganisation applications to occupy much of the Commission’s time and resource. We will also look to consolidate key relationships within councils and local government leadership as well as with other organisations and agencies that have an interest in local government best practice.
In our constructive regional conversations programme of last year, commissioners met with council leaders across the country to hear from them on a range of local initiatives and to discuss possible approaches to common challenges. We intend to further this work by being more visible and available to the sector.
The Commission’s work in recent years has highlighted that there are options short of full reorganisation that could bring benefits to communities. The inflexibility of the current legislation prevents their effective consideration, particularly in the absence of an application for reorganisation.
Consequently, the Commission has watched with interest from the side lines the healthy debate over the proposed Local Government Act Amendment Bill (Better Local Services reforms). This legislation has the potential to affect the Commission’s mandate and how it operates. The Select Committee is due to report back to the House at the end of March this year, and at this point the timing of any subsequent legislative change will become clearer.
Whatever decisions Parliament ultimately makes, the Commission will fulfil its statutory functions; and with the shared goal of promoting and achieving good local government, we will continue to work with the sector to make a positive difference in the lives of New Zealanders.
This article was first published in Local Government Perspectives 2017.