By Linda O’Reilly, special council, Tompkins Wake.
I have just taken two months off from local government, but local government itself has had no time out.
As at the date of writing the Government’s response to the generally negative decisions of local authorities on the Three Waters reform package remains unknown. The big question of whether there will be compulsory on-boarding remains unanswered.
Similarly, the even bigger question of what form local government will take in the future is only just starting to be addressed with the Future for Local Government Review interim report having been released at the beginning of October. This two-year project due to finish in April 2023 opens a realm of questions and possibilities that go well beyond the possibility of greater amalgamation or even de-amalgamation.
I am certainly not the first to suggest that coupled with resource management and Three Waters reforms, local authorities are being put under a huge strain in terms of coordinating responses and preparing to meet new operational requirements.
For example, the enaction of the Water Services Act 2021 will impose new and more onerous duties on drinking water suppliers. But, the commencement date is currently unknown except that it will be within the next two years, and the passing of the Act at this point in time seems designed to pressure local authorities in terms of their decision-making on the Three Waters reform package.
It was always questionable whether all three reforms ought to be coming at once, or whether resource management, water management and the form of local government should be treated as three distinct packages.
Notwithstanding the pressure for growth, particularly in relation to the provision of housing, it does not seem entirely logical to change the provisions governing land development while treating the provision of water, wastewater and stormwater services separately.
Even less so if sometime within the next two years we might be looking at an entirely new local government structure. There can be no assumption that the current hierarchy of units of local government or their functions will be retained. One might be tempted to ask, if the Government does not trust local government to supply water services, why would it trust it to control land use planning and development?
The Government does not seem to be winning too many plaudits with its current full tilt ahead strategy.
The Natural and Built Environments Act exists only as an exposure draft; the Strategic Planning Act is under development; and the Climate Adaption Act is somewhere down the track. While there is support for these reforms of the Resource Management Act 1991, feedback is mixed and the whole picture is not yet clear.
The Three Waters reform has attracted some support but raises many issues for local authorities about the loss of control of assets and service delivery, and the impact on the viability of some units of local government once stripped of these functions.
The Future for Local Government Review will address the big picture, and the interim report has identified a raft of issues and poses relevant questions. Not least in relation to adequate representation and involvement in decision-making by diverse communities, and the imperfect relationship between local and central government. It also recognises that the impact of current consultation and engagement demands on iwi and Maori are onerous without necessarily improving Maori sector well-being.
While all this reform is happening, life is happening too.
Encouraged by Government requiring local authorities in high demand areas to make more land available for development, developers are designing green fields developments ahead of available infrastructure and running up against opposition from local authorities unwilling to approve plan changes or activate future development zones without buy-in on the cost of infrastructure.
Climate change is proceeding apace with more and more adverse weather events creating natural disasters and disrupting local services, and a largely inadequate legislative and funding framework to address this issue.
Funding and affordability continue to prove a major hurdle to both capital and operational expenditure, and at least partly consequently the business community tends to be more ‘on guard’ than ‘hand in hand’ with local authorities.
Governance issues also continue to arise, as witnessed by the appointment earlier this year of a Commission to replace the elected membership in Tauranga, and the unfortunate and sad discord between members, officers, and the long-serving mayor of Invercargill.
My problem with all of this is simple.
As a local government lawyer, I have no doubt in due course I will be called upon, with my colleagues, to assist in interpreting the demands and requirements both broad and detailed of new legislation implementing changes the Government imposes.
I may even have the opportunity to influence the drafting of some detail in such legislation. This is beginning to look like a massive task. It is not often that essentially every legal power, constraint, and duty on a whole level of government changes. But do not fear for the legal community. We will cope.
Whether or not the embattled members and officers of local government will do so is another question. As I write from my base in Auckland, we are heading into the ninth week of the current lockdown. Waikato and Northland have in the last week been put back into lockdown. Elsewhere in the country remains at Level 2, effectively strangling businesses, many of which will not survive. The local authority officers I know have become adept at working from home. Council meetings are held on Zoom or MicroSoft Teams. This is not the first time this has happened, and the end is not yet in sight.
I do not doubt that there is a need for local government reform. What I doubt is that local government can reasonably be expected to cope with addressing and implementing the proposed and foreshadowed changes in the immediate future. And what is the incentive for local government to support changes to land use controls, environmental regulations, and water services when the future of the sector is under review?
The Government is driven by macro issues like climate change and social equity. Local government is driven by those things too, but at a level more directly connected to the needs and demands of its local community.
For a local authority, climate change may be about the fact that its neighbourhood stormwater drains are now consistently over-flowing, and social equity might be about how to fund a library in an under-serviced community.
Changes to major services and regulatory regimes like water and resource management are part of the bigger picture. It seems to me that the Government has put the cart before the horse. If open-ended local government reform is proposed, it ought to have preceded the service area reforms now proposed.
The Minister had the opportunity to open that debate at the beginning of her first term. To do otherwise is a recipe for confusion, wasted effort and resources, and risks a breakdown of the entire system of local government as we know it.
What the sector needs is more time, and a comprehensive not piecemeal approach.