NZ election: Councils call for more influence over housing, climate change policies

A Northland Regional Council meeting.
A Northland Regional Council meeting. Photo credit: RNZ / FIle

By Harry Lock of RNZ

Local councils need more say over critical areas like climate change and housing, says an appeal from Local Government NZ.

The plea to the next Government from the agency representing all local governments is part of its "election manifesto".

They're calling for action in five policy areas; all are bound by the collective issue of "democratic wellbeing", or lack of it. The term is used to define the balance of decision-making between local and central government.

"New Zealand is one of the most centralised decision-making countries in the OECD," Local Government NZ president Stuart Crosby said.

"Our goal is to get at the beginning of the conversations in terms of policy decisions, so we can assist the government of the day in terms of making good policy decisions that will actually work on the ground."

Councils in New Zealand spend just over 10 percent of the entire country's budget. In comparison, the average for countries in the OECD is 46 percent.

The organisation said giving councils more power, more influence and more say would lead to financial efficiency, improved public services for local communities, and increase voter turnout and engagement.

Five areas to improve "democratic well-being"

The manifesto - or "wishlist" - looks at five different areas where they argue "democratic well-being" needs to be urgently improved: climate change, housing, transport, local democracy and the environment.

It outlines policies to address the decision-making imbalance:

  • On climate change, it wants a Local Government Risk Agency to collectively address the natural hazard risks councils face
  • On housing, it asks for central government to deliver affordable housing in partnership with local authorities, and to allow additional funding and planning tools to enable them to provide the infrastructure necessary
  • On transport, it calls for more public transport funding to meet the needs of their area, and to be recognised by the Ministry of Transport and the Transport Agency as critical partners
  • On local democracy, it encourages a broader range of funding to ensure the sustainability of council services, and a process for establishing Māori wards
  • On the environment, it wants a community-led outcome to protect indigenous biodiversity, and the establishment of an equitable funding system to deal with increasing costs related to rising environmental standards.

The importance of keeping decisions local

Crosby said local expertise, knowledge and nous needed to be drawn on.

"The key is [although] often senior officials in Wellington have the good ideas, [they] fail to understand what the ramifications are on the ground with the local community," Crosby said.

"That's where we believe we can assist in that space."

The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, which came into effect earlier this month, is being heralded as an example of when central government got it right.

The Chair of the regional sector for Local Government NZ, Doug Leeder, said local government officials were involved from the start, and were able to make changes which meant the final version was a vast improvement on previous drafts.

"That reflected essentially the regional councils concerns around saying, 'well you need to understand that if the policy as prescribed is to be played out, the difficulties in terms of implementation, monitoring and enforcement, all have to be considered'."

With regional councils playing the regulatory role for the policy, he said it was essential they were involved in the outcome of the policy.

"At the end of the day, a lot of the problems that we're endeavouring to address, whether it's urban development, or it's freshwater degradation - they're a consequence of people.

"If people embrace that, and say collectively we've contributed to the problem, and collectively we'll resolve it, then we'll be in a better place."

Leeder - also the chair of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council - said that's how policy-making should be designed.

Issues around funding remain after a decade

Hamilton mayor Paula Southgate said they have significant infrastructure costs looming, and the current funding model - which relies on the ratepayer - provides insufficient income to deliver such projects.

"The future is huge," she said. "We've got a lot of growth, we've got a lot of ageing infrastructure, and we've got a lot of new infrastructure that we need to put in place, such as through the Three Waters, the need to increase standards for drinking water, to deal with our wastewater and stormwater.

"They're huge costs."

With such a miniscule pot to draw from, there needed to be a re-assessment of where local councils can find the funding.

"We can't keep tapping into the ratepayers, we need some more incentives to get over the hurdles we face right now, and that will deliver huge economic and social benefits."

Stuart Crosby said re-examining how local government funds its services has been a conversation for more than a decade, but for councils with a burgeoning population which are now at breaking point, they need action.