Local Government Act 2002 becoming convoluted

As we approach the end of the third term of this Government, it is important to look back at how the legislation defining local government in New Zealand has changed. Since 2008, a number of changes have been made that significantly alter how local councils operate and the obligations that they are expected to meet. As many of these changes have flown under the radar many New Zealanders are not aware that they even happened.

To understand how the Local Government Act 2002 came to be in its current state, we need to look at prior legislation. One of these prior Acts of Parliament is the Local Government Act 1974, which among other things made provision for the establishment of District Councils, Regional Councils, Unitary Authorities,

Prior to the 2002 Act being passed by Parliament, the 1974 legislation was quite prescriptive in terms of what councils were permitted to do. The newer legislation gave councils the flexibility to choose activities and how they are undertaken, viewed as relating to general competence and applicable in equal terms to both regional councils and territorial authorities. Since then these changes have been amended by the Local Government Amendment Act, 2010. This was prompted by public perceptions that there were councils over reaching their prescribed mandate to spend money on activities and items that are not permitted in the Local Government Act.

One such case was Kaipara District Council which in the end was found to have not breached the Act, after a dispute over the Mangawhai waste water scheme. The Auditor General agreed to pay out $5.4 million in settling the dispute.

Another is Westland District Council, which has been found wanting over repairs to infrastructure damaged by flooding in 2016. W.D.C. have had a long, drawn out and at times messy public dispute with key council managers and the Chief Executive, which have led to some high profile resignations. Although it is not clear if the Act was breached, given that a cake decorating firm with no prior knowledge of waste water was involved in a multi-million dollar contract, I think it is safe to say something went wrong.

In acknowledging the 1974 Local Government Act and the 2002 Local Government Act, it is important to briefly acknowledge the 1989 Local Government Amendment Act. This Act acknowledged that the increasingly complex, convoluted and potentially dysfunctional L.G.A. 1974 needed a significant overhaul. To that end it dismantled or merged 850 separate bodies into 86. Of those 850 there had been 249 municipalities and the other 601 were catchment boards, drainage boards and harbour boards. The current configuration includes 13 regional councils and 73 territorial authorities (City and District Councils).

In 2012 there were changes made that repealed Sections 91 and 92, which pertain to the processes for identifying community outcomes and obligations to report against said community outcomes. This essentially meant councils were no longer obligated to indicate how they were progressing in terms of creating healthy integrated communities, compared with the outcomes identified in council planning papers. In the same year, the powers of the Minister were significantly increased (s257-259) so as to permit the appointment of a Crown Observer, Crown Manager, a Commision or even calling of general elections of a council in place of one thought to be incapable of performing its statutory obligations.

I fear that if too many more Amendment Acts are passed that the Local Government Act 2002 will be too convoluted to remain in existence, thereby becoming obsolete.

How local government legislation has eroded democracy

During the last 8 ½ years there has been significant changes to how local authorities operate in New Zealand. It is important to revisit what has happened since there seem to be two relative certainties with each new Government:

  1. The Local Government Act will be reformed
  2. Depending on the composition of the next Government the priorities for local councils will be made to change through legislative means

During the last several years, there has been a succession of amendments to the Local Government Act 2002. In 2010, one of the changes was to Section 11, specifying what local authorities shall pay regard to in performing their roles and included:

  • Network infrastructure
  • Public transport
  • Solid waste and its disposal
  • Avoidance and mitigation of natural hazards
  • Community infrastructure and facilities

This on one hand might have been viewed by some as a deliberate narrowing of local governments role, it was also interpreted by many as a necessary sharpening of the focus. This is particularly so when considering the nature of the Local Government Act 1974 and how this prompted the major reforms announced in the Local Government Amendment Act, 1989 where catchment boards and a slew of other authorities were replaced with city/district/regional councils.

More (much more)problematic was the 2012 repeal of nearly all references made in the 2002 legislation to “the four well beings” – social, environmental, economic and cultural. These had been included in the 2002 legislation and had formed the basis for the the Long Term Plan (Section 93). The redefinition of community outcomes was intended to reinforce the change in priorities, mentioning “good quality infrastructure, local public services and performance of regulatory functions”.


Then there is the case of Part 10. The original version  dealt with Ministerial powers to scrutinize the performance of councils. This in itself is not a bad thing and transparency is essential to the successful running of one. Its provisions were somewhat restricted – a simple request for information, appointment of a review authority or a potential investigative commissioner. With the election of National in 2008, the provisions were significantly expanded to include the power to replace a council (see Environment Canterbury). The Minister can even call a general election (the basis of necessity for this eludes me in the context of a local authority unless it is of such a divisive nature or such high national importance that the New Zealand taxpayer needs to involved).

I can see further erosion of democracy happening if there is not opposition mounted. Thus these changes over the years are of significant concern. But changing the Government is not a one size fits all solution. Changing the laws about how local government elections work, improving public involvement in the democratic processes we go on about so much among other solutions are the best ways forward.

New Zealand needs a revolution in land use planning

With all of the talk about housing going on, I find it somewhat surprising that no one has attempted to look at the idea of apartment living more closely. Given the lack of flat land in some urban areas and issues that go with reclaimed land, the current trend towards big single story houses and needless landscaping, and the development of infrastructure with more of this wastage in mind, strikes me as absurd.

I personally find the word revolution too emotionally and politically charged to use as a general rule. However there is coming a time in land use planning where it might be the most suitable way of describing the growing need to change how we approach land use planning.

The quarter acre dream is dead. If not it should be. The expansive suburbia ideals of the 1950’s and 1960’s need to be exited from planning. With our limited space, and geographical challenges such as the narrow isthmus in Auckland or the long corridor zones of Wellington, it is simply not realistic to continue to pursue. In its place we need to be prepared to go vertical with residential complexes, have communal vegetable patches in order to teach future generations about self sufficiency.

Planning law needs to become substantially more accommodating to apartment complexes. Too often politicians favour loosening up land zoning changes, such as changing industrial zoning to residential when it needs a substantial clean up first or zoning an area at high risk from flooding to something that permits intensive development. The current thinking  In doing so, the theorem around public transport will hopefully change so that cars have a less of a role in private transport. The idea that if you build where ever the roading network will simply follow suit and everyone can drive themselves, needs to go. Smart cities integrate with bus networks, and – where possible – railway networks.

Is the urban area a rough blob shape with a clearly defined centre? If so, a ring and radial network of roads and railways may work best. It looks like a bike wheel with the radial routes being the spokes, and the ring routes being the rim and so forth. In New Zealand the best example would have been pre-earthquake Christchurch. Globally Tokyo and Moscow provide good examples of such planning theory. This theory worked well prior to the earthquakes of 2010-11, where Christchurch’s bus network looked much like the model described. It might still work in the future if certainty about the reconstruction of the city centre can be obtained.

In the case of Auckland, urban sprawl and a growing motorway network with no real vision other than build more motorways is becoming an increasing problem. I was quite shocked in 1998 to see hectares of land disappearing under new commercial development displacing farms or fruit or vegetable growing businesses. The scale of the development, and the lack of regard that seemed to be given towards issues such as storm water run off, infrastructure and so forth.

I do not know how or when this revolution will start or what form it should take, but it plain to me that the status quo is not working.

When geomorphology and human existence collide

As a natural hazards postgraduate, and one with a natural interest in geomorophological processes, I have been talking to people about their perceptions of the changes wrought by the Waiau earthquake of 14 November 2016. It has been a topic of conversation that people have generally readily participated in.

From these conversations I have deduced that a lot of people – both elected officials trying to sound positive in the face of adversity, and people not really understanding the hidden geomorphological process – do not understand the scale of the changes wrought. There are perceptions that somehow the road and railways will reopen again shortly. There are perceptions that the landslide dam hazard will last only a few weeks and then everything will be back to normal, that rivers will flow like they had before the earthquakes. Unfortunately that is not going to be the case.

One of the numerous effects that the landslide damming of these rivers will have is to change the ecology of them. Some of the smaller landslides will not affect the rivers in the long term, as the river will carve out a channel around the toe of the landslide, which in turn will be washed away or stabilize as a permanent feature. Larger landslides however may semi-permanently dam the rivers whose catchment they occurred in, so that the ecology downstream and how people use the river as a resource change too. The largest landslides will completely dam rivers, leading to one of two outcomes:

  1. The river stablizes, and water is able to safely drain into the river without undermining the dam
  2. A potentially catastrophic dam burst event where the dam fails and a large volume of water potentially in the 000’s m³s-¹ occurs

Following and during the latter outcome, a large amount of sediment will be deposited in a very short time, which will completely relay the layout of the riverbed channels. With channels that were occupied now suddenly buried, that means the water may start flowing down old channels that might not have been occupied since before European settlement. Rivers in Kaikoura and Hurunui Districts are affected by landslides, a list of which can be seen on the Environment Canterbury website:


In the short term with summer coming on and these rivers being popular for fishing, canoeing/kayaking, boating, but also supplying irrigation water to farms and drinking water to a number of small towns, the availability of water could be severely impaired because of the reduced flows. In many small towns where rivers provide recreational opportunities that are the livelihoods of local businesses, the combination of severe flash flood hazards from landslide dams and river levels being too low for jet boat tours, and so forth a lean summer might await. There is also a risk that some of the smaller dams may fail in this time causing short sharp flash flood events where anyone and any property on the affected river bed would be in immediate danger.

In the medium term consents for water takes might change as the long term effects of the landslide dams starts to become clear. Rivers that might have had 15-20 cubic metres per second of flow during summer and be able to allow small takes of water for irrigation might not be able to supply that water any longer. Rivers that have landslide dams on them that are stable, may cease to flow or be reduced so much that any remaining water has to remain in the river just to enable it to perform its ecological and geomorphological functions. In the medium term it will also become clear which rivers will now start to rearrange their floodplains as the volumes of landslide debris that fell into the catchments now starts to get flushed out by floods. Heavy rainfall events causing slips and future earthquakes triggering fresh landslides will happen, potentially causing unforeseen aggradation and avulsion events to start.

The long term will see District and Regional Councils reviewing how they manage landslide dam hazards within their boundaries. They will be forced to examine the legal issues that go with land titles suddenly ending up in a river bed when, under the influence of large volumes of sediment being reworked through their systems, a river begins to avulse to a new course, possibly cutting across properties and livelihoods. Ultimately it will be councils and the central Government talking about how to fund remediation works.

The aftershock sequences might be quieter and the slow quakes in progress under New Zealand might be relieving the faults of accumulated stress. However the geomorphological changes that are coming in the next few years and even decades will affect communities and individuals alike.

Immigration: Not for the “Too Hard Basket”

A column by well known economics commentator Shamubeel Eaqub that was made public today, suggests that immigration is an uncomfortable subject to discuss. It comes at a time when immigration numbers are pushing 70,000 people and property prices in Auckland continue to sky rocket. It comes at a time of almost daily debate among politicians about what to do to fix the problem. And it suggests that nothing simple that can be done about the hot potato that everyone is passing around, but which few seem to have an idea of what to do with.

Actually there is. There is nothing wrong with discussing immigration and in the near future we will have no choice. But before we do, let us get a few things clear now:

  1. We are talking about people wanting to move to New Zealand of their own free will. This is quite different from refugees and asylum seekers, whose cases for coming to New Zealand are quite different.
  2. Every nation has to have this debate at some point and a failure to do so may have us ending up like Britain or France, with a large disgruntled immigrant population that was not planned for by central and regional authorities.
  3. And if we don’t have this discussion the changing geopolitical landscape will force us to have it before very long. So let us start it now, on terms friendly to New Zealand.

The above three points might be stating the bleeding obvious. However there is a lot of deliberate misinformation out there, that is being deliberately fed into the conversational mix to suit certain agenda’s. This is happening against a backdrop of a rare alignment of the political moons in progress – how often do such a broad range of politicians implicitly agree with New Zealand First and its leader Winston Peters that immigration is not sustainable?

Normally the Greens and the Labour Party are at pains to point out their tolerance of diversity. They talk about letting more immigrants into New Zealand, pointing to the rich kaleideoscope of ethnicities in New Zealand and their contributions to our society. But when the number of immigrants arriving each year is the population of some of our smaller cities and the building industry cannot keep pace with building houses for the existing population even their outlook is changing, albeit rather grudgingly.

Let me be honest here. I want New Zealand to remain a beacon of tolerance and diversity. Immigrants do add richly to the social and cultural fabric of our nation. They teach us as much about ourselves as we teach them and the world at large. But for New Zealand to maintain the living standards it does and still be that beacon of tolerance and diversity, immigration has to be kept to a level that our economy and environment can sustain and right now that is not happening.

Every house we build needs as a requirement of various Acts of Parliament a driveway, running water, sewerage and storm water disposal and electricity connections. Somehow that needs to be connected up to existing networks. Do we build outwards or do we go upwards to accommodate these people. All of this costs ratepayers money to maintain. The waste that comes from these households also has to be disposed of in a responsible manner and right now that is not happening.

So let us make immigration sustainable because it will be New Zealand at large and everyone living here who will end up paying if we do not. But to do that, we need to have that honest conversation.