Anti-violence campaigns could suffer under council reforms, say West Auckland groups

Te Waha Nui report by Harry Pearl
Government plans to rein in local councils could harm ongoing attempts to reduce family violence, say Auckland social service providers.

Waitakere Anti-Violence Essential Services (WAVES), an organisation supporting more than 55 family violence service providers in West Auckland, says the effectiveness of national campaigns like It’s Not Ok and White Ribbon Day could be undermined if the council no longer has a licence to help provide social services.

The Government last month announced it would make changes to the Local Government Act 2002, citing irresponsible council debt and rising rates as the main drivers for the amendments.

Part of the Government’s Better Local Government reform package includes replacing references to the social, economic, cultural and environmental well-being of communities, with the councils’ role instead defined as providing “good quality local infrastructure, public services and regulatory functions at the least possible cost to households and business”.

Although what will be changed is still unclear, the Government’s intentions are causing worries. Poto Williams, manager of WAVES Trust, says she’s concerned the organisation won’t be able to get its issues before decision makers.

“It will potentially cut the opportunity for local groups to be able to discuss and get some really good support for work and initiatives that are going on in their community.”

Williams says if the council goes back to just roads, rates and rubbish, the opportunity to build on good work done around campaigns like It’s Not Ok and White Ribbon Day could be lost.

“Having the ability of the council to get involved in that, because they’ve got great communication structures and they’ve got the ability to develop media and resources for the community – those are the types of things we’ll really lose.”

However, supporters of the proposed reforms, like Orakei ward councillor Cameron Brewer, say they are long overdue.

“Let’s not forget since the broadening of the Local Government Act that rates have gone up on average seven per cent every year across the country and the municipal debt has quadrupled within the last decade.”

Brewer says local government needs to focus primarily on local infrastructure, local regulatory services and looking after local ratepayers. “Where I have an issue is the fact that we’ve just got involved in too much non-core business and that we’ve got to a point where we really started to get involved in central government responsibilities.”

The Local Government Act 2002 sets out four main components to community well-being: social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being.

Brewer believes many councils, including Auckland’s current council under Len Brown, have interpreted those four well-beings far too liberally at a high cost to ratepayers.

Community spending, under which family violence prevention falls, accounts for 12 per cent of Auckland Council’s operating expenditure and nine per cent of gross capital expenditure as laid out in the council’s Draft Annual Plan for 2011/2012.

Richard Northey, deputy chair of the Social and Community Development Forum, says operational expenditure is significant, but nowhere near as large as that of infrastructure, which accounts for most council spending.

He believes the Government’s plans will change little of what the council is already doing to promote social well-being, because the Government’s emphasis on providing infrastructure and public services covers spending on things like local halls and swimming pools, the likes of which have community value.

Others at street level – like Williams – however, are still concerned the reforms could mean a break in linkages between groups working in the community and with local government.

“Council is a big organisation now but it needs to retain the links into the local communities,” says Williams. “Across Auckland we’re very different types of settlements and groupings and one size doesn’t fit all. We need to retain connection to the local groups and what their needs might be.”

The first half of the Government’s proposed reforms for local councils will be introduced to Parliament in May, with the intention to pass the legislation by September. The second half will be part of the Local Government Reform Bill proposed for 2013.