Opinion by Auckland Councillor Cameron Brewer
Many on the Right will be disappointed the Local Government portfolio wasn’t given back to Nick Smith. It’s instead gone to 18th ranked minister Chris Tremain.
Dr Smith was the architect of the government’s “Better Local Government” reforms. It’s a shame he hasn’t been brought back to see them through and drive their delivery, with Parliament only passing stage one of the reforms late last year.
In the decade following Labour’s 2002 Local Government Act, average rates increased by seven percent a year annum and council debt quadruple. National’s reform package aims to rebalance these runaway numbers, add clarity around the role of councils, stronger governance, improved efficiency and more responsible financial management. Many ratepayers have wanted to see councils’ focus back on core business.
To get many of the country’s 78 councils back on the straight and narrow, the Government needs a Local Government Minister who will keep the pressure on and be firm with Local Government New Zealand.
I’m sure the new minister is up for the task, but he’ll need to hit the ground running as there’s a lot of resistance to change particularly from inside the Auckland Town Hall and no doubt others around the country.
It’s human nature that many in local government don’t want their wings clipped. I found it ironic that remits were passed against the government’s proposed changes at last year’s LGNZ conference held in a luxury waterfront Queenstown hotel, where Auckland Council alone sent 36 representatives.
When it comes to acting like a state government, not a local council, Auckland Council is proving to be one of the worst offenders. Mayor Len Brown is into everything. The council borrows $1b a year, or nearly $3m a day. Last year 256,000 Auckland households had an average rates increase of 8.1%, while staff numbers went up by 12% to 8,040 full-time equivalents.
This is a great opportunity for Mr Tremain to stamp his mark, drive the rest of the reforms, and protect the country’s ratepayers. The new minister needs to up the tempo on National’s local government reform programme, get in the driving seat, and deliver some positive changes for ratepayers. The pressure is on for real results, and not just from ratepayers.
These reforms are part of the Government’s broader programme for building a more productive, competitive economy and better public services.
Given New Zealand’s 78 local authorities make up 4% of GDP, spend $7.8 billion per year of public money and manage $120 billion worth of assets, the country needs them to perform and stay focused. That is the new minister’s task.