Local government forced to settle for small wins.
I was struck recently by a media release from LGNZ that began: “Letting local communities determine whether shops can open on Easter Sunday is a win for local decision-making.” It is not that the passing of the Shop Trading Hours Amendment Bill, allowing territorial authorities the power to permit shops to open in their districts on Easter Sunday, is not a ‘win’. Rather it is such a little win in the bigger context of local government.
It’s not much more than a crumb tossed out by the government. It is hardly the stuff of dreams for aspiring local politicians in this election year.
The Shop Trading Hours Amendment Bill very sensibly addresses the longstanding bugbear of Easter Sunday retail trading by giving territorial authorities the power to make a policy that will permit shops to open in some parts or all of their districts on that day. Where such a policy is in place, the prohibition in the Shop Trading Hours Act 1990 on shop trading on Easter Sunday does not apply.
The policy is an all or nothing provision. It may not permit shops to open for limited purposes only, apply only to certain types of shops, specify opening hours, or apply any conditions as to the circumstances for opening. In reality, the new law gives territorial authorities the very limited power to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ to Easter Sunday trading in their districts.
In the meantime, despite early reports that nominations for positions on local authorities, community and local boards would close not fully subscribed or with no election needed, candidates new and old rolled up in time to create contested elections in most constituencies. It would be interesting to know what those candidates know about the role of local government and the very substantial changes that are proposed for the sector by the government.
In an earlier media release commenting on the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill (No.2) LGNZ said: “… current proposals to reform the Local Government Act have the potential to threaten local democracy and the ongoing sustainability of some councils if enacted… In its submission to the Local Government and Environment Select Committee LGNZ argues some changes proposed in the Bill would undermine local democracy by diminishing the decision-making ability of locally-elected representatives – and as such reduce the ability of communities to have their say on important local and regional matters.”
Of course, the Minister of Local Government Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga denies this. Addressing members at the LGNZ Conference in July he said: “These reforms give councils new options for managing infrastructure and delivering services to their communities without needing to amalgamate. The reforms protect local democracy and encourage local decision-making to meet local needs.”
The Bill is still before the Local Government and Environment Select Committee, submissions having closed. The report back is due on October 28, with a view to passing legislation before the end of the year.
Whatever view one takes of the proposed amendments to the Local Government Act 2002, it is clear that the government is taking a tighter rein over local government, with similarly significant changes to the Resource Management Act 1991 and the Building Act 2004 being part of the Better Local Services reforms. With Productivity Commission reports a-plenty to back up government initiatives the pace of reform looks set to continue.
This creates a real risk, especially outside of the major centres, that changes to the sector might lead to less interest in participation. A seat on the Auckland or Christchurch councils might always have pulling power. But it is harder to see why good quality candidates should be attracted to smaller councils when the expansive authority embodied in the four well-beings has been tossed out, and services such as transport and water are likely to be managed by council-controlled organisations on the say of the Local Government Commission following ministerial directions.
This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.