Over the last few years, New Zealanders have watched a number of changes in the area of local government profoundly changing the way our local councils work.At the same time they have contributed less to the performance of their governing councils by showing less and less interest in local government elections, and the councils performing other statutory functions. And as we come to grips with the fact that only 40% of New Zealanders voted at the recently concluded local government elections, it is perhaps time to set the record straight on their performance.
One example of New Zealanders under appreciating local government is the fact that often ratepayers have not understood what councils are doing and why the plans they put forward for public consultation are important. As a result ratepayers have failed to take the opoortunities to make submissions when councils have called for them on things as diverse as the Annual, 5 year or Long Term Council Community Plan’s. Plans for controversial infrastructure have gone ahead, not because the Council/s in question igored the public, but because the weight of public submissions made was not strong enough to deny the consents being sought.
Are councils perfect? Of course not. One only has to look at the outcry when Ashburton District Council said it wanted to proceed with a bottled water factory. When the public found out about the proposaly to bottle 40 billion litres of water a year, (actually not a very high rate per second) rate payers were outraged at the duplicity and the then Mayor of Ashburton District Angus McKay lost his re-election contest in the recently held local government elections.
Do councils waste money? Yes. The best of many examples I can think of is a piece of art work in the Avon River of Christchurch that best acts – in the absence of doing anything else that is useful, as a rubbish and weed collector. I to this day do not know what the thinking behind plonking it in a river was or why anyone in the council thought it would be of use. Another one, also in Christchurch that I can think of, which has been questionable at best has been the new signposts randomly spread around the Restart.
Do we need all of the local government bodies – 11 Regional Councils, 53 District Councils and 12 City Councils plus two Unitary Authorities – that we have? Possibly not. The West Coast of New Zealand has three district councils – Westland, Grey and Buller – and a Regional Council serving 40,000 people. Compared with say Waimakariri District in Canterbury, which is one of the fastest growing districts in New Zealand, and has more people than the entire West Coast put together, you might say there are too many district councils on the West Coast. But if you reduced the number there, the case could be argued for the reduction of other district councils as well.
Former Christchurch City Councillor David Close however makes some informed comments about how the councils work – an area he misses though is the Resource Management Act, which is often criticized as being cumbersome. Yes, it is a comprehensive Act. But it replaced 50 pieces of legislation. It also has a vision of sustainability that defines how New Zealand’s environment needs to be managed in the future. Former Councillor Close also points out how the Christchurch City Council had the difficult job of reconciling building closures during the earthquakes with ensuring that they would be safe.
But a council and how it operates is really a reflection on the people and the community that elected it. If the people are disenfranchised then they will not so keenly involve themselves in council related business. And although the Mayoralty of Hamilton turned into a nine vote race, ten votes in support of the other candidate shows how bothering to do ones civic duty – contrary to what Mike Hosking will have one believe – really does work.