Local government review: Be more like us, says Marlborough

5:40 pm on 27 April 2021

What's next for councils? That's the question driving the biggest shake-up of local government in a generation.

Marlborough's answer: be more like us.

Marlborough Mayor John Leggett

Marlborough Mayor John Leggett. Photo: Brya Ingram / Stuff via LDR

A review of local government was last week announced by the government in response to its own plans to tweak and absorb two of the main roles of councils - water and resource consents.

Marlborough Mayor John Leggett said without these tasks, councils of the future could put more "emphasis" on other areas - something the review panel could guide.

"Reading between the lines, there may very well be an opportunity for councils to be given other responsibilities, like increasing our portfolio for senior housing," he said.

Marlborough District Council chief executive Mark Wheeler said Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta had hinted that councils could play a big role in social issues.

"Councils are obviously closely connected to our communities, as opposed to government organisations."

Marlborough District Council chief executive Mark Wheeler says the council is "running lean" on staff to deliver environmental programmes

Mark Wheeler. Photo: LDR / Chloe Ranford

The council planned to tell the review panel that the nation should have more unitary councils or councils with the duties and powers of both a district and regional council.

Wheeler said unitary councils had a "really good model" that allowed staff in different roles to be in close contact.

"For example in our council, the river engineers work closely with ... the people in the policy teams. In other areas, you have both a district council and regional council, and you get double-ups for the same roles and resources."

Wheeler said Marlborough, as a unitary council, was also already ahead of a government proposal to reform the Resource Management Act (RMA) through its Proposed Marlborough Environment Plan work, which brought three regional plans into one.

The government wanted to condense hundreds of council plans into just 14 development plans, or one for each region in the country.

"We've already got that. That is, again, the unitary model. It will be interesting to see whether they might want more," Wheeler said.

Nanaia Mahuta

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

There are just four other unitary councils in mainland New Zealand: Nelson, Tasman, Gisborne and Auckland. The Chatham Islands also has a unitary council.

Announcing the review last week, Mahuta said the review's panel would consider what councils should do, how each should do it, and how each should pay for it.

"They will explore what local government's future looks like, including roles, functions and partnerships, representation and governance, funding and financing," Mahuta said.

New government rules had in the past come with little or no national funding, leaving some councils struggling to adapt with just general rates for income.

The Productivity Commission found the passing of "unfunded mandates" was an "unsustainable situation" and councils required more support from the government.

Wheeler said several funding ideas had been tossed around in the past, but none had been backed.

This included the idea of allowing councils to keep a portion of the goods and services tax, or GST, collected through their rates - worth more than $18 billion a year.

This could help with costs otherwise lumped onto rates.

"Councils provide facilities for, say, international and domestic tourists, but takes no revenue from them, apart from rates collected by tourism accommodation," he said.

"The cost of this shouldn't have to fall on the ratepayers."

Leggett said Marlborough's council was "lucky" it had other forms of income available, such as dividends from its port, rent from its properties, and sales from its logs.

"We need a funding mechanism to help local government perform ... We would need some form of direct payment.

"We're welcoming the opportunity for a review. The local government model isn't broken, but I hope the review will build on our strengths and plug some of our weaknesses."

Mahuta also wanted the review to decide how councils could better embrace the Treaty of Waitangi partnerships.

"Local councils are essential to maintaining and improving our wellbeing, and we need to get the right settings for them to continue delivering their important mahi (work)."

The review panel is due to report back in April 2023 after considering feedback from the public from September 2022.

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