Peter Haynes, Chair, Albert Eden Local Board

Readers can be forgiven for missing the debate about whether local bodies should have their role severely curtailed. Despite the prospect of the most far-reaching reforms to local government in a generation, there has been remarkably little public debate.

The proposed reforms narrow local bodies’ role from the current “four well-beings”—

social, economic, environmental and cultural—to just local infrastructure, public services and regulation. Views range widely. To some it is the biggest attack on civil society since Margaret Thatcher; others pine for the “good old days” when local bodies restricted themselves to roads, rubbish and rats.

The latter view ignores the changes to the world over the past fifty years. My own experience in office tells me that people today have higher expectations of local government than their grandparents had. Underlying the buzz around the prospect of a livelier, more interesting and more easily navigated city, there is recognition that this requires investment in public spaces, assets and events.

The same trend is seen elsewhere. Can we be different? Well, we’re told Auckland competes with other Pacific Rim cities like Sydney and Melbourne rather than Wellington or Christchurch. Their authorities are spending heavily to make them more attractive places to live and invest. Do we want to hobble ourselves so that we can’t compete?

It’s not that local bodies have greatly increased their functions since the four well-beings were introduced in 2002. As the Government’s adviser (the Department of Internal Affairs) puts it, “There is no clear quantitative evidence to suggest that the [2002 Act] has resulted in a proliferation of new activities, or that local government is undertaking a wider group of functions.”

So the scope for savings by cutting functions is limited. Almost all of your local board’s spending is on maintaining or operating parks and local facilities (chiefly libraries, halls and recreation centres). We could cut grants to community organisations, but that’s just .006% of our total budget. Further, we are careful about spending—we didn’t send anyone to the Queenstown conference last month. We question officials closely about budgets for projects.

Government is more concentrated at the national level here than in similar countries. For example, some friends from the UK visiting recently were surprised to learn that Auckland Council didn’t run the local schools, as they do there. Is it good for our democracy to further concentrate power in a unicameral parliament at the centre?

Also, councils and local boards are closer to the ground and better placed to shape and deliver community development, local arts funding and the like. The Council’s tourism and local development arm has no interest in providing the support to local businesses that I outlined in the issue before last. What chance central government taking this on effectively?

For all these reasons and more your local board supported the Auckland Council submission opposing narrowing of local bodies’ functions. Interestingly, delegates at the recent Local Government New Zealand conference voted unanimously to oppose. We are not alone in this stance.

Contact me: [email protected]

Article in The Garden, the magazine of the Mt Eden Business Association