Has the Government stuffed up the Auckland Plan?
The Local Government Amendment Bill 2012 is now law.
Introduction of the Bill managed to achieve something very rare in New Zealand’s history, it managed to unite all of Local Government against it.
The offending provision was one that changed the purpose of local government. Previously the purpose was to enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities and to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities, in the present and for the future. The provision was based on the conclusions from the United Nations Rio Declaration on Environment and Development which essentially state that to have a meaningful effect on the environment and on quality of life local community action was required. The best way to improve things was to act locally. The concepts of social, economic, environmental and cultural became to be known as the four well beings.
This offended the Government for some reason. It created a crisis, saying that local government expenditure was out of control and it came up with a rushed and poorly thought through solution.
How rushed and poorly thought through is shown by the comments in the Regulatory Impact Statement for the bill. Two comments stand out in particular:
“There is limited evidence to inform the development of these proposals, and the timeframe within which the proposals have been developed has restricted the ability to assess multiple options. As a result, the problem analysis and option assessments of specific proposals rely on assumptions that are not, or only partially, tested. The extent of the uncertainties and risks are identified and discussed for each proposal.”
And further, “[t]here is no clear quantitative evidence to suggest that the LGA02 has resulted in a proliferation of new activities, or that local government is undertaking a wider group of functions.”
These are carefully worded Wellington speak comments by senior public servants saying that there is no evidential basis for what was being proposed. The language may be gentle but the statement is damning.
And they are right. An increase in rates in 2002 was because of a change in the Local Government Act which required Councils to fund depreciation each year. It had nothing to do with a spend up on social programs. And the main example the Government provides, the Mangawhai sewerage scheme cost overrun, was providing essential local infrastructure and would not be affected by the changes.
Despite the overwhelming opposition and the lack of justification for the proposal the Government nevertheless rammed the changes through. From now on Local Government’s purpose is the provision of good quality local infrastructure, local public services and the performance of regulatory functions.
This has thrown Local Government into turmoil. Throughout the country lawyers are being consulted to see what current local government activities are no longer permitted.
Councils are still allowed to exercise rights that they have under the Act. In particular they can continue to fund network infrastructure, public transport services, solid waste collection and disposal, the avoidance or mitigation of natural hazards and libraries, museums, reserves, recreational facilities, and other community infrastructure. But whether this allows the funding of community groups for instance is a matter which may need to be decided by the Courts.
The changes pose special problems for Auckland Council. It has recently, pursuant to legislative change effected by this Government, completed the Auckland Plan. The relevant statutory provision required the Council to formulate a plan that would “contribute to Auckland’s social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being through a comprehensive and effective long-term … strategy”. The four well beings are very prominent. If the worst fears are realised Auckland Council’s shiny future looking plan may contain a load of stuff that the Council may no longer be able to do.