National’s plan to gut councils.

It seems the current National government have decided that city & district councils do too many things for their communities, and they want them to stop.

From article “Govt puts the squeeze on councils” by Kate Chapman and Kay Blundell in The Dominion Post:

Local Government Minister Nick Smith today released his “Better Local Government” plan which he said would provide clarity around the role of councils and improve efficiency.

A major focus of the plan is introducing new fiscal responsibilities for councils.

“The rapid rise in council expenditure and borrowing over the past decade has seen some councils reach unsustainable levels of debt,” said Mr Smith.

He said the reforms would help keep rates affordable following an average rise of 7 per cent a year since 2002.

Last week, Wellington City Council said rates could rise by 4.4 per cent.

The aim was to limit expenditure growth to no faster than inflation and population growth. Except in extraordinary events such as disaster recovery expenditure.

The government’s justification for this change is that council expenditure is out of control, however the Department of Internal Affairs says something different, from a (now suspiciously deleted) page in the Our Policy Advice Areas section of their website on Rates Increases, they specifically say:

Why are rates increasing?

Rates have risen an average of nine percent this year. This includes commercial and residential properties.

Infrastructure provision has been the main reason for rates increases in the past few years and for projected increases over the next 10 years.

That’s right, the Department of Internal Affairs says that rates have been rising because councils have been investing in infrastructure projects. Not because councils have been running music festivals or swimming pools or programmes to reduce the impact of child poverty in their communities. Infrastructure.

The reason for this rise in council spending on infrastructure? From the DIA site again:

Past under-investment in infrastructure and maintenance.

There are other reasons listed, they include increased external costs for fuel, rising population, and lower tolerance of pollution.

The government try to tell us that the increased spending is because councils are out of control and wasting money in areas they have no business being in, and that they’re proposing these changes to force councils to get back to core business.

This is a lie.

The Department of Internal Affairs policy advice tells us that the spending increase is because we’ve had years of under investment in infrastructure. They’re spending so much now, because they’re trying to put that right.

The National government will try to tell spin it, they’ll say that the problem is that councils are wasting money supporting festivals, public swimming pools, running social programmes, and on providing local art and culture.

How do I know they’ll do this? Because they’ve already started.

This morning National Party mouthpiece* David Farrar posted (“An example of why local government reform is needed“) on his popular site Kiwiblog about Horowhenua District Council engaging in a joint venture with Focal Point Cinema to re-open Levin’s only movie theatre. A movie theatre which had been closed by its owner, leaving the town with no operating cinema at all.

Farrar is pretending to be care about this cinema partnership because the towns of Shannon & Tokomaru, which are under Horowhenua District Council control, have received “Precautionary Boil Water” notices. David’s suggestion is that if it wasn’t for the Council’s cinema partnership, those towns would have water treatment plants turning out deliciously sweet and crystal clear water.

Now, the cinema was re-opened in 2010, and the ‘Boil Water Notice’ was issued in 2011. So why it’s coming up now is a bit boggling until you come to the obvious conclusion is that it’s politically expedient, the government is receiving push-back on their planned changes to the law, so they’re trying to seed controversy. The fact that they had to delve so far down into the bottom of the barrel to find anything that even appears to support the Government’s claims of council profligacy should be revealing.

It doesn’t matter to David that according to the Horowhenua District Council’s own boil water notice the problem isn’t that they have no water treatment, but that the area was running on reserve supplies because the water treatment plants supplying those areas had been overloaded by flooding.

It doesn’t matter that Horowhenua District Council has a 3 million dollar water treatment plant for Shannon funded and in the design process, with deployment planned for 2013. Or that Horowhenua District Council has an even larger water treatment plant & reservoir planned for nearby Levin, budgeted at around 10 million dollars.

It doesn’t matter that they very clearly aren’t distracted from their infrastructure obligations in the slightest by the cinema project.

It doesn’t matter to National that the water infrastructure projects have a combined cost of something around 26x more than the trifling little cinema partnership.

And it also doesn’t apparently matter that the cinema project is what would popularly be called a Public Private Partnership, which you’d think would be eagerly supported by a right-winger.

They don’t care about the details, because they know that most people won’t look them up.

Most people will read the headlines and they’ll think “I pay rates and I don’t want them to be wasted, so let’s get these council lunatics under control”.

Well guess what, my dear rate-paying friend, those rates you pay aren’t being wasted. On the contrary, in the majority of cases, your rates are being put to exactly the sort of use you’d hope. You’re being lied to by your government. But don’t feel bad if you believe them, they’re very convincing because they’ve got so very much practice.

Now, of course there are bad projects out there. Councils can be dysfunctional. They’re full of people, after all. But those misuses of funding appear to be a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. Breaking the entire system in order to get rid of those edge cases makes no sense.

Note that nowhere in their spin does the National government ever say that once they restrict our councils’ funding will they pick up any of the slack.

No, once the central government stops the district & city councils from providing services, they’ll just hope that private business picks it up.

Spoilers: they won’t.

Levin wouldn’t have gotten their cinema re-opened without their council stepping up. They previously had a cinema run by a private business. It closed it down.

Which business will pick up the pieces if Porirua City Council is forced to end their child poverty programmes?

No one will.

But then we come to the second prong to the central government’s attack on the councils.

Because National’s not only squeezing councils’ funding, they’re also changing other parts of the Local Government Act 2002, which is the rule book on how councils operate.

Where the Act currently makes references to “social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities”, these will now be changed to “providing good quality local infrastructure, public services and regulatory functions at the least possible cost to households and business”.

Spot the glaring differences.

So even if councils are somehow able to find the money to continue work on their current social or cultural programmes to benefit the community, they’ll no longer be allowed to.

We elect our councils democratically. If they have programmes that we don’t like, we can vote for someone else.

In Auckland we’ve seen regular swings from one side of the political spectrum to the other, no single ideology is ever in complete control permanently.

The point of democracy is that sometimes you get your way, and sometimes you have to suck it up while the other guy has his, but what the current National government are doing is changing the rules so that councils are forced to behave the way National wants, even when the local voters haven’t voted for National.

We need to send them a message that this isn’t the way it works.

National failed to get their way with the Auckland Supercity, losing control of the mayoralty and the council, but they still want to be able to tell us what to do.

If the National Party wants to control what councils do, then they should do what everyone else has to do: win council elections. Then, and only then, should they get to decide the focus of any city or district council.

Convince the local community of your programmes, win an election, implement your proposals.

Otherwise, leave community issues to the local community.


* David Farrar has repeatedly protested that he’s not on the National Party’s payroll, I believe him. However that doesn’t mean he isn’t gladly doing their bidding.