21 Jul 2022

'The toughest term': Mayors grapple with pace and scale of reforms

7:52 am on 21 July 2022

Mayors say the speed and scale of local government reforms are challenging local councils whose staff are "flat out" trying to meet the demands of all the changes required by government.

No caption

Palmerston North mayor Grant Smith said dealing with reforms had been tough going. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in a speech to the Local Government New Zealand conference in Palmerston North, acknowledged the challenges local government is having to face, much of it at the same time.

"I understand that together the speed and scale of change on so many fronts plus the demands of service delivery in the here and now make this a uniquely challenging time," she said.

The theme of this year's Local Government New Zealand conference is Te Wā Heke Mai: the Future.

And with three waters reforms, the Resource Management Act, climate change, infrastructure, the Future for Local Government Review, and Covid-19, local government is facing some of its most significant challenges in generations.

Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby acknowledged the sheer amount of work councils were having to deal with at once.

"Yes, the reforms are necessary, in some shape or form. We've actually been asking for most of them. But what we're unhappy about is the pace at which they're going, and the sequencing of them. We believe the Future for Local Government work should come first, followed by the RMA reforms, and then the infrastructure to support those," he said.

Palmerston North mayor Grant Smith said it had been tough going.

"In eight years as being the mayor of this city, this has definitely been the toughest term. You've got a number of different factors, all these central government reforms, and whether you agree with them or disagree with them, you've got to deal with them," he said.

No caption

Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins said it was becoming increasingly difficult for councils to do the work required of them. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

When it comes to Three Waters, councils are starting to feel spread thin.

Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins said it was becoming increasingly difficult for councils to do the work required of them by the National Transition Unit.

"We see in the legislation for the Water Services Entities Bill significant requirements for us to be able to provide information to the Transition Unit. At the same time they are also able to compulsorily second our staff, that we need to be able to do that," Hawkins said.

The government is giving every council $350,000 to assist them with the significant demand on time and resources the transition will require.

"The benefit of going down and visiting these councils is you hear from them straight, face to face. And one message that they've consistently said is that whether they agree or not, there is a demand on staff and their staff are already flat out with other things," Associate Local Government minister Kieran McAnulty said.

"And so if we want to do this right, we know why we're trying to do this, we need to spend money to save money. And so we're putting money into councils to give them the resources that they need to do this transition."

McAnulty said smaller rural councils would benefit more from the money.

But Central Hawke's Bay mayor Alex Walker said it was a drop in the bucket.

"Sometimes actually putting money into the system doesn't solve all of the problems, because we actually need people. We need people with expertise who are going to give us guidance and best represent our communities and our assets as we're going through this protest," she said.

Central Hawke's Bay is one of a number of councils most opposed to the reforms, and a member of the action group Communities 4 Local Democracy.

But Walker appreciated the prime minister's acknowledgement of the pressures councils are facing with the various reforms.

"We have to have faith in the democratic, Parliamentary process that government has put in place. We're hoping that we will see some changes to the policy process."

Grant Smith agreed.

"We've got an open mind about everything, and I think there's been general agreement something needs to be done. It's just the model, the pace, and the stick approach, has been really hard to take."

Both mayors felt their communities' voices had been silenced, and encouraged the public to make a submission to the Water Services Entity Bill.

Selwyn mayor Sam Broughton also encouraged the public to have their say.

"It's open to all New Zealanders. If people have got a view, whether they're for or against the reform, they need to enter into that process," he said.

Selwyn District Mayor Sam Broughton says the Government is yet to make a convincing case on the Three Waters' reforms.

Selwyn mayor Sam Broughton. Photo: Supplied / Selwyn District Council

As councils deal with how to work through the reforms, the public backlash is increasing.

A protest outside the conference was a signifier of the abuse mayors and councillors were being subjected to more than ever before.

"You come to expect that you're going to come up against all sorts of reviews from people, whether it's via email whether it's you meet them in the street. But it's all part of being in the public, and I expect that and I welcome that. If we she shut ourselves off too much from being available for people then we're unable to respond to the needs of today," Broughton said.

Aaron Hawkins said New Zealand was not immune to the international trends of public discourse.

"The tenor of that and the toxic element of public debate is certainly something we are seeing more and more of in local government. It is difficult, it makes it harder to convince good people to put their hand up to stand to represent their community."

Stuart Crosby

Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby. Photo: RNZ/ Andrew McRae

But Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby said the government had put mayors, councillors, and officials into a difficult, upsetting, and frustrating situation.

"Because of the very poor explanation of many of the policies, particularly three waters, by the government, it's been up to the councils to explain a policy that the vast majority don't agree with in total, including LGNZ," he said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was a tough time to be a public-facing official.

"I think that there has been a change in tone in some of the debate that we see. We should keep being willing to contest ideas to disagree with one another, but do so in a way that's respectful and ensures people feel safe," she said.

Ardern acknowledged with the speed and scale of the changes there was a lot on councils' plates.

"The state of play for New Zealand as for the world is a challenging one, and I have no doubt that those challenges can feel even more amplified at local level. I want you to know we understand that the scale of change is large and the pace fast, but not insurmountable, if we work together," she told the delegates on Wednesday.

Matamata-Piako mayor Ash Tanner didn't hear those words.

Wearing a mask saying "Stop 3 Waters", he walked out of the speech early, calling it "crap."

"Just the way it's been sold, the three waters, you know? The whole thing's been based on lies and misconceptions."

Some councils are seemingly more willing to remain "in the tent" than others.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs