Local Government Magazine

Gear up for an interesting year in local government

SOLGM CEO Karen Thomas reflects on the 2018 local government year and predicts what the incumbent government will bring about next.

This time last year I wrote a similar predictions piece against a backdrop of a newly-elected parliament, a change of government (in some ways unexpected) and a policy community coming to grips with what it meant. It’s fair to say that the transition and what might loosely be termed the ‘direction-setting phases’ took a little longer for this government than has been the case for the past 20 years (I have to think back to 1996/97 and the National/New Zealand First coalition). Much of 2018 was spent setting the agenda and the rules of engagement. I predict 2019 will be a year of breakneck speed in the beltway – anything ‘big’ gets done in 2019, or it will have to wait until after the 2020 elections.

Wellbeing returns to the ‘official’ purpose of local government

Heading the list has to be the ‘official’ return of the four wellbeings to the Local Government Act – though wellbeing in 2019 might not be the same thing as wellbeing in 2002.

This is a clear and genuine invitation to the sector to form a partnership in promoting the wellbeing of the nation. This government, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, favours the joined-up solution.

It’s not enough for an application to the Provincial Growth Fund to move the economic needle; a successful application will have an economic outcome delivered in an environmentally sustainable way.

As of the time of writing, the legislation hasn’t been passed – but we’d expect it to come soon in the new year. We’re helping the sector to get ready by promoting a common understanding of how to ‘measure’ wellbeing and practically implement what might be called a wellbeing approach.

We can’t afford to get lost in ‘my indicator is bigger than yours’ type debates or engage in well-meaning, but mostly academic, debates about whether this wellbeing lines up with that one.

The government has followed up with a Cabinet paper headed ‘local governance and community wellbeing’. While much of this paper has the appearance of a business case for funding for the partnerships team, the frontispiece confirms the notion of partnership and seeks approval to further consider how the two spheres of government interact.

While the localism principle features, we don’t see a wholescale reassignment or movement of functions to or from local government. The work that comes out of this paper will look at how to empower local solutions and seed innovation – it’s no accident that the Southern Initiative is showcased as an example.

Perhaps we need to pick some of the lessons out of overseas initiatives, such as the ‘city deals’ from the UK, and worry less about which academic term du jour gets mentioned where.

Acceptance that there is a funding problem

Since 1945, there have been nine reviews of local government funding, plus four substantive reviews of the Rating Act, and (at least) two of the ways local government makes funding policy. In 2018, we saw the government initiate the tenth inquiry.

Assigning the review to the Productivity Commission was an interesting step. The Minister told delegates at this year’s SOLGM Summit that ministers wanted independent and robust advice, and fresh thinking.

SOLGM will spare no effort in making sure this enquiry doesn’t go the way of the previous nine.

The Beca report on water, the GHD report on the cost of meeting the freshwater national policy statement (NPS), the cost of meeting the NPS on urban Development capacity, and our own long-term plans point to an unprecedented spend on infrastructure in the next 20 years. We had the exposure draft of our response to the Commission’s paper out to the sector in three (very) fevered weeks of activity.

Where will all this head? The commission will probably recommend a number of tailored solutions. That is, this programme is to identify this particular need, this programme to fund that particular need. Local government’s main funding source will remain as rates as a tax on property.

We should value our independence of funding – it is the key to our autonomy as a sector. The experiences of our equivalents in the UK under the so-called austerity regime of the Cameron government should be a lesson to all.

Lots of interesting signs in urban development

A year ago, I commented on the assignment of housing, urban development and transport to the same minister (Hon Phil Twyford) and speculated that this would see an attempt to better align land use and transport planning.

One of the five pillars of the so-called Urban Growth Agenda is yet another look at spatial planning – though limited to Auckland, the Auckland-Hamilton corridor, and (depending on which Cabinet paper you read) Queenstown.

If central government wants to make progress on spatial planning as a mandatory thing, it may need to cut through competing departmental agendas by assigning the central government leads to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The other pillar that interests us is the ongoing consideration of 24/7 road pricing. Minister Twyford has previously described this as the silver bullet in terms of the economic signal it sends about the true costs of location decisions and road use.

We agree – and can only say it’s about time. This has been on the policy agenda since the Land Transport Pricing Study of 1996/97.

And in the middle of that let’s not forget the urban development authority legislation that’s due to land early next year.

The review of three waters is the potential point of division

The sector is lining up to oppose any attempt to make aggregation of three waters entities mandatory. While it’s not our role at SOLGM to take a political position for or against the three waters, we at SOLGM will be involved to the extent of making sure that issues like the technical and second order issues are well known and well identified.

Based on what we’ve seen, the things that most concern us are that the link between water and the economy, and water and land use planning hasn’t been well articulated in what we’ve seen to date.

Then there’s a host of other things to consider. If you are going to have an independent regulator of drinking water, are they just regulating the health and service aspects of it, or will they be regulating things like the way it’s priced, and what sort of information water companies are required to disclose to consumers? If there are nationally-set environmental standards, what does this mean for the standards regional councils are setting?

And, 2019 is election year

While 10 months is an eternity in politics, we are expecting an increase in turnout at the 2019 local elections, driven off a larger number of competitive mayoral races in metropolitan New Zealand. It will probably be lower than 45 percent nationally. We should view that as a challenge as all the evidence says voting is habit forming.

The incumbent Minister of Local Government has expressed an interest in civics education. I believe we do need to have a conversation about how we build the value of civic participation into our education. That is through things like the youth voting programme or changing the curriculum to include a compulsory element on local government.

• Karen Thomas is CEO of the Society of Local Government Managers (SOLGM). karen.thomas@solgm.org.nz

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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