The Government announced policy changes on Monday that will make it easier for proponents of local government reorganisation to initiate reform.

Most important are these changes …

1. The Local Government Commission (LGC), which reviews and recommends reorganisation initiatives, will be required to “consider the benefits of a reform proposal for simplifying planning processes”.

As the announcement continues: “This change may mean there is more interest in unitary authority models because of their potential to simplify planning processes.” You can expect that to be true in Hawke’s Bay!

2. The process to instigate LGC consideration of a reorganisation initiative is made easier … and it includes public participation at the very outset.

Any council or “community” can bring forward a proposal, which if it meets statutory criteria, will then be developed  by the LGC and published as a draft proposal for public consultation, with the LGC hearing submissions. Thus, the new process is easily triggered, doesn’t require months of fruitless negotiation by disinterested or obstructionist councils (as we are seeing right now in Hawke’s Bay), is independent, and the public is invited to participate.

In short, the Government-mandated process now includes every feature the Napier City Council has resisted.

3. If the LGC determines that a proposal meets criteria, it can move directly to prepare a reorganisation scheme. A poll on the proposal can be triggered, if 10% of voters in the affected area petition for one. But a poll is not otherwise required.

4. And if a poll is conducted, to be successful it requires majority support over the area of the new council, and not of every existing district or city. In other words, individual districts do not have a veto (although the Government says that “to proceed, there must be significant community support in each of the affected territorial authorities”.

Taken together, these changes clearly strengthen the hand of those who wish to see some form of local government consolidation.

That’s precisely what Government intends. Indeed, Local Government Minister Nick Smith says in the Foreward to the programme, passage of the enabling legislation by next September … “will enable the Local Government Commission to consider council reorganisation proposals in time for the October 2013 local government elections.”

And you might expect reform advocates like A Better Hawke’s Bay to jump at this opportunity.

The Government has wrapped its procedural reforms in a heap of rhetoric about local government debt. A lot of politics at play on that one … which boil down to the pot calling the kettle black.

More on that in a future post.

In the case of Hawke’s Bay, even though the wisdom of this or that project might be challenged (and BayBuzz has done its share of challenging), the problem isn’t runaway local debt … it’s the lack of region-wide planning and priority-setting to guide prudent investment across a range of bona fide community needs.

The supporting document for the announcement, Better Local Government, is attached here. I’ve pasted the pertinent procedural discussion below for reader convenience.

Tom Belford

Streamline council reorganisation procedures

There is the potential to achieve efficiencies and better decision making through structural reforms of councils in some parts of New Zealand. The experience of the reforms in Auckland has been a reduction of 2000 staff with no drop in service standards or levels of infrastructure investment, and savings of $140 million in its first year.

The current reorganisation process in the Local Government Act 2002 is lengthy, complex and the chances of success are low. Of the 11 proposals considered under the existing provisions only one boundary change and one abolition proposal have been successful.

The new process will be:
1. Community or council prepares an initiative and submits it to the Local Government Commission;
2. The Commission assesses the initiative against statutory criteria and either:
a. rejects it; or
b. refers it back for further work; or
c. proceeds to develop the initiative into a draft proposal;
3. The Commission approves and publishes a draft proposal for consultation;
4. The Commission hears submissions on the draft proposal from affected communities and other interested parties;
5. The Commission determines whether the proposal has sufficient public support and if so, proceeds to a final proposal;
6. If a petition of at least 10% of the affected electors of the proposed new council request a poll, this will be undertaken and determined by a simple majority over the area of the proposed council area;
7. The Commission prepares a final reorganisation scheme that is implemented by Order in Council.

A significant change in the process is that the existing process requires a petition of 10% of electors to initiate a proposal. In the new process this mechanism is used to trigger a poll on a draft proposal for reform. A further change is that, to be successful, a poll requires majority support over the area of the new council, and not of every existing district or city.

The statutory criteria to be used by the Local Government Commission will also be amended. It will specifically require the Commission to consider the benefits of a reform proposal for simplifying planning processes. This change may mean there is more interest in unitary authority models because of their potential to simplify planning processes. Where such a model is proposed, the Commission would need to be satisfied that catchment based flooding and water allocation management issues can be dealt with effectively. The changes will also mean any new unitary authorities, like Auckland, will be simply named the <name of District> Council.

The statutory criteria will also be amended to put greater weight on the benefits of efficiency improvements. It will also require that, to proceed, there must be significant community support in each of the affected territorial authorities. This will ensure that a larger council cannot simply take over a smaller council by weight of numbers, as the Commission will have to be satisfied that there is significant support for reform in the smaller district or city.

The Local Government Commission can reject initiatives where it is clear they would not meet the criteria, offer no improvement, are poorly conceived or frivolous, or where the proposal might have a negative consequence for neighbouring councils.

The new process needs to be flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of proposals and solutions, which requires the Local Government Commission to have sufficient powers to consider a wide range of ideas and options and to develop proposals for achieving good local government across the area concerned. The establishment of Màori committees may be considered by the Commission as part of the development of any proposal.

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1 Comment

  1. The final draft of the legislation has not been released yet, Tom, but the reports to date suggest that polling the public for their approval is not an integral part of the process of local body reorganisation. Even if a poll is held, it would seem that it would be a regional one with the capacity to over-rule any part of the region that did not want to participate in amalgamation.

    So much for the freedom, self determination and democracy that so many New Zealanders fought for.

    The Auckland experience would suggest that there are likely to be some unpleasant surprises in the final form of the legislation, eg, unelected "Advisory bodies" with voting powers on committees.

    Ian McIntosh

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