23 Apr 2021

Local government review to focus on evolution over next 30 years

6:40 pm on 23 April 2021

An independent review of local government will explore how councils can maintain and improve the wellbeing of New Zealanders in the communities they serve, long into the future.

Watch the announcement from Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta here:

Announcing the review today, Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta said it would focus on how our system of local democracy needed to evolve over the next 30 years.

Mahuta said now more than ever, local governance participation and democracy needed to be strengthened.

"It is about our people."

The approach was needed to improve wellbeing of communities and environment, she said.

It needed to honour Te Tiriti O Waitangi too, she said.

"It's an inclusive approach, it speaks to everybody."

It had been more than 30 years since the last meaningful review of the sector, Mahuta said.

"LGNZ believes that the time is right to review proactively the local government framework in order to ensure we are locking in the strengths of the existing system while addressing its weaknesses and enabling democratic decision making at the appropriate level."

The process would have to imagine Aotearoa in 30 years time and "describe what a thriving, robust system of local democracy looks like.

"This is a futures thinking exercise and it's at the heart of what the next generation of local government must be."

Mahuta said councils were facing a wave of reforms that would significantly affect their traditional roles and functions.

The pathway for change had to be considered, she said.

"It's unrealistic to think we will be able to transform such a complex system in the short term. We think to think about how we stage a process of comprehensive reform and what our initial priorities are."

The review panel

The review panel would consider what local government does, how it does it, how it pays for it, and explore local government's future, including:

  • roles, functions and partnerships
  • representation and governance
  • funding and financing

The panel will be chaired by Jim Palmer, recently retired chief executive of the Waimakariri District Council.

Other panel members are former Deputy State Services Commissioner John Ombler, strategic planning consultant Antoine Coffin, Gael Surgenor, former Auckland deputy mayor and councillor Penny Hulse.

It is due to have an interim review back by September 2021, draft report by September 2022 and a final report in April 2023.

Mahuta said the timing was planned to give "serious considerations of the review findings to inform Parliamentarians about the sector and stakeholder views of what the sector should look like".

She did not want it seen as a "partisan work programme".

Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta at the announcement of a review of local government.

Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta at the announcement of a review of local government. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Review panel chair Jim Palmer said it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a difference, but warned the decisions made were "not going to please everybody all of the time".

"But ensuring that we have been able to demonstrate that we have listened, understood the concerns of communities and all of the interested parties of which there are many, making sure those views have been taken into account and genuinely considered."

The review will take place over two years, which Nanaia Mahuta said would allow it to account for Three Waters and RMA reforms that would also impact the sector.

The report is due back in April 2023, just months before the general election, but she was confident changes could get across the line.

National Party local government spokesperson Christopher Luxon was supportive of the review, as long as it was not used as an excuse for centralisation and taking power away from ratepayers.

"This government is increasingly taking a 'we know best, Wellington knows best' [approach] and sort of building central bureaucracy.

"We've seen that with charter schools, or polytechnics, DHB and I don't think it's appropriate we go down that road with local government," he said.

He was hoping the review would be a broad look at local government in the 2040s, rather than band-aiding the current 1980s system which was "fundamentally broken".

"National will support common-sense moves that lessen the burden on ratepayers, make it easier for councils to get houses and transport infrastructure built, and strengthen local governance."

An interim report on the direction of the review will be delivered in September.

Review 'must deliver bold response' - LGNZ

Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby said with major reform coming, there was an opportunity to make sure both tiers of government were aligned while enabling local leadership.

"The operational realities for local government are huge urban growth and tourism pressures, greater focus on environmental protections and climate change pressures, all matched to outdated funding tools...

"The review panel must deliver a bold response that is in tune with the needs of our diverse communities and our Treaty partnership, and which considers how our future generations are afforded a voice and a choice in their towns, cities and regions, and how their local initiatives are funded."

The recommendations from the review would require "deep engagement with all communities" and Crosby encouraged the panel to work with "iwi, community groups and beyond".

"We encourage all New Zealanders to engage with the Future for Local Government programme - this is your opportunity to shape local democracy, the closest form of government to the people".

Crosby said there had been more and more responsibilities put on councils over the last 30 years - but it had been siloed.

"If I could look ahead for a vision I could see both sectors of government actually working together, particularly in the delivery space for a whole range of activities, more effectively, more efficiently, ultimately serving the current and future generations of this country.

Hutt City Mayor Campbell Barry said councils could not continue for the next 30 years with the current mechanisms in place.

"We have the constant battle in local government as councils ... expectations to keep rates low, but also the mounting pressures on infrastructure and need in the community.

"We simply don't have - particularly when it comes to funding - many mechanisms to be able to deal with that," he said.

Barry said it was not just about funding but looking at delivering services differently for example through partnerships with iwi and other groups.

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