Auckland Local Government New Zealand exit 'expensive and rash', critics say

3:16 pm on 24 March 2023
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Auckland City council could see its street lighting bill rise due to its decision to exit Local Government New Zealand. Photo: 123RF

Auckland's abrupt exit from the representative body for all local councils could cost it $750,000 more than it saves, just on streetlighting, and is short-sighted, critics of the move say.

The council voted on Thursday about whether to leave the advocacy body Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), with a split vote decided by Mayor Wayne Brown who had made the proposal to leave.

The move was made to cut costs, as the council tries to bring down a $295 million budget shortfall. But the cost-cutting move was expected to cost the city more than it would save.

Auckland council would save about $350,000 in LGNZ subscription fees by leaving, LGNZ said, though Brown said the council would save $650,000 from its budget. However the national body said it the exit could cost Auckland $1.1 million more each year on its streetlights' power bill as an LGNZ streetlighting programme would no longer extend to Auckland.

All other local councils in the country belonged to the body.

Franklin ward councillor Andy Baker said it would be hard to push for changes at a national level without LGNZ.

But Brown earlier said pulling out of LGNZ would force government ministers to engage in meaningful consultation with Auckland rather than just talking to a roomful of mayors in Wellington.

He said he had the skills to put up a good fight for Auckland at the national level and claimed LGNZ was an excuse for councillors to get together, get pissed and dance, but there was little benefit to ratepayers.

Brown had been booked to speak with Morning Report on Friday but did not join the show, despite multiple attempts to reach him, but later told Midday Report he believed the council had a more prominent voice outside of the wider body.

"When you compare what we're trying to do is have a good relationship with government ... we don't need to belong to a group to go and have meetings in Wellington. We'll certainly have the ear of ministers ... in a year when there's an election coming, even more so.

"The main role it fulfils is to collect all the mayors together so the ministers can drive out and make a speech and say 'well, we've done consultation'. Well, we're going to have to have meaningful consultation with one third of the population."

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown at a council meeting on 23/3/2023

Mayor Brown at the council meeting yesterday. Photo: RNZ / Finn Blackwell

Brown said the $650,000 cost to the council discussed had included the $350,000 LGNZ membership fee, costs for people to travel to meetings, and the cost of staff time managing the relationship with LGNZ: "It's not as if being a member doesn't require more work within council," he said.

He said it was possible leaving LGNZ could cost Auckland ratepayers more initially - "probably for a very very short period of time, but we'll soon sort that out."

"It is the consideration of my council that we're better out of it. [Auckland's] three out of 15 [LGNZ council seats] doesn't give you much say. We're the largest local body in the country and it serves no purpose - that's why we're not there."

LGNZ said Auckland would lose the benefits of a collective voice, lobbying to government ministers, policy advice, and training for elected local council members.

LGNZ president Stuart Crosby said the decision to leave was disappointing and disconnected Auckland from the rest of the country.

And some of Brown's comments about LGNZ's events had been "derogatory ... and an insult to a large number of people".

"Yes we do have one function a year, which is an awards evening, and there is hospitality there, but not in the sense mayor Brown has indicated," Crosby said.

Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby.

LGNZ president Stuart Crosby. Photo: Supplied

"It's the only time really they bring the whole sector together with international speakers, consider some of the events of the day, particularly ... government policy.

"New Zealand is so diverse from rural, provincial, metro and regional New Zealand and that's the only chance they can come together to discuss those issues and develop strategy and policy ... to ... influence good outcomes from the government of the day."

Auckland benefited from intellectual property developed by an LGNZ programme to minimise street lamp electricity use, and which saved the region more than $1m a year in benefits, Crosby said.

But Brown said: "We don't accept that."

"That's about an arrangement for some funding with the ECCA [the Energy Efficiency & Conservation Authority] - with us leaving they'll probably lose that. They only get that because we're there.

"We can easily organise that ourselves. If we leave LGNZ then probably that will crash that arrangement anyhow, we are the biggest customer. ECCA will soon quickly arrange with us.

"You've got to understand I've run two power boards, I'm not without some understanding of this."

Crosby said LGNZ had also set up a programme to get councils low interest rates on loans.

He claimed Brown had stifled debate and information before the decision, and said while Auckland Council's membership fee had been tallied at about $600,000 in some information during the discussions, it was actually closer to $350,000.

"Councillors were asking questions about this - as they should - and we were prohibited to answer those questions by mayor Brown," he said.

'Damaging and costly' - North Shore ward councillor

Auckland Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson said the council had dealt with infrastructure challenges more effectively than other local authorities and leaving LGNZ would demonstrate the merits of the city's bespoke council structure.

Auckland Council finance and performance Committee Chair Desley Simpson.

Auckland deputy mayor Desley Simpson. File photo Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

But North Shore ward councillor Chris Darby said the move isolated Auckland and showed the region was self-interested.

He told Morning Report the move was a mistake when it came to being an effective council and a mistake financially.

"We lose being part of the collective voice of local government right across New Zealand. We're facing some big issues on the national agenda and [LGNZ] enables all the councils to put those big meaty local issues on the national agenda, get those issues framed up, find the collective voice and coordinate presenting those issues primarily to central government to get some resolve on them.

"We need to be part of that ... we need to be in the mix."

In recent years, some councils had been dissatisfied with LGNZ's ability to get changes made to the government's approach to housing density and Three Waters plans.

"Interestingly ... Auckland Council failed to appear in front of the [Three Waters] select committee recently - it baled," Darby said.

"Whereas Local Government New Zealand was at that table, at the select committee, putting [across] the views of the various councils, including Auckland because we were contributing to their submission.

"But we weren't there. On Three Waters. We failed to appear before the select committee."

Chris Darby at a Council meeting about the Unitary Plan. 10 August 2016.

Auckland councillor Chris Darby. File photo Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Darby said disagreement between different local councils about issues facing the country was healthy.

"There are different voices, and that's all part of being the collective, you actually listen and learn from the other councils.

"There's a lot of detail, a lot of benefits which you're not aware of - they just seem to flow through, and we're at risk of not benefiting from that [street light programme]. There's a whole body of work that is being undertaken behind the scenes all the time at Local Government New Zealand.

"Right now for example, Local Government New Zealand is coordinating a lot of taskforces in the flood devastated areas of Tairāwhiti and Hawke's Bay - as they did in Kaikōura and Christchurch. Many councils would not realise what Local Government New Zealand is doing behind the scenes."

During the last few years Auckland Council had challenged LGNZ about the region's level of representation within the body, and LGNZ had responded by allowing Auckland three seats on its national council, metro sector and regional sectors groups, Darby said.

Auckland had no budget to cover some important benefits it would lose - Manukau ward councillor

Manukau ward councillor Lotu Fuli wanted the council to remain a member of the organisation because of what she said was immeasurable support given to Māori, Pasifika and young councillors.

"The ability to sit together with other elected members from around the country to share our experiences, to network, to mentor, to train and to develop our skills, and as councillor [Kerrin] Leoni said, and as was confirmed by our staff, our council doesn't provide that kind of support for young elected members, for Māori for Pasifika elected members.

"We certainly don't have a budget for it, and I don't think we're planning to have a budget for it in the future. So there's a lot of that benefit, that is very difficult to quantify in terms of money."

Lotu Fuli

Auckland councillor Lotu Fuli. File photo Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu

Brown said he did not believe Māori or Pasifika councillors would miss out, because of the move away from LGNZ.

Most of Auckland's 21 local boards had wanted the council to stay with LGNZ and got significant benefits from the membership, its president Crosby said.

Darby said while LGNZ might accept Auckland back into the national body if the council changed its mind one day, the damage would be done.

"I think there's a real dent in the confidence that other councils have in Auckland at the moment.

"I'm of the view that you don't dig a moat around Auckland and have it become an isolated state. We need, as a big council, to be contributing to local government around New Zealand, not just being takers of what we can get out of Local Government New Zealand."

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