Christchurch – Is it time to overhaul local government?
Leeann Watson, Chief Executive of the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce. Photo / Provided
Last week, I was representing our local business community in Wellington. I learned three things while I was there.
A. Our region (Christchurch) is a great place to live and work. The ease of getting from point A to point B, the variety of activities at your fingertips, from the mountains to the sea, and the abundance of car parks and cycle paths. We sometimes take this for granted.
Of them. Our infrastructure is top notch. From our brand new world-class convention center, Te Pae, to being able to move quickly around the city and region, to our modern building stock and well-planned downtown, we are well positioned to meet to future growth.
Three. Our local government is not always connected to the needs of our business community. Business sentiment towards local government has slipped back – and we are not alone in facing this challenge.
Across New Zealand, businesses and taxpayers are increasingly dissatisfied with the service delivery of their local councils.
Maybe it’s because we’re heading into an election season or maybe it reflects an increase in negative sentiment towards governments – a global phenomenon. It may be a bit of both.
It got me thinking – with all the challenges local governments face, the expectations we have for their delivery and the recent merger discussions, perhaps the problem is that the structure and way of operating within of local government are no longer suitable objective.
We have basically had the same governance structures and the same way of doing things for a century. The world has changed a lot during this time, as have our ways of doing things and the challenges.
Once-thriving provincial regions are shrinking
Across New Zealand, we see once-thriving provincial regions shrinking, often referred to as zombie towns. They can no longer invest in replacing aging infrastructure because they no longer have a growing population and simply do not have the taxpayer base to fund it. They focus on basic services and nothing else.
The big cities that are starting to merge with their satellite townships want to invest more and do more. For the big city, amalgamation can be seen as the golden hen to achieve economies of scale and more streamlined governance.
No matter where you look, there are challenges and there are no easy solutions.
From top to bottom, country councils are in trouble. Whether it’s access to finance, a bloated bureaucratic machine inflexible to change, or simply bad decision-making.
Is it time to radically rethink the functioning of local authorities?
It may be time to radically rethink the way our local government works and think about what we need to do to be able to deliver the best results for the city, the region and New Zealand.
Every business and every taxpayer is impacted by local government in some way. They get rid of our waste, give us access to clean water, provide services and build infrastructure. If any of them were to stop, the impact would be immediately evident. Local government has an important function – sometimes we only notice it when it’s not working.
That these services are delivered effectively and that the right incentives can be put in place to enable local councils to fulfill their responsibilities requires thinking outside the box.
Local body elections
Every three years, we jump on the local topic of the day, before electing new representatives who we expect to change and improve things under the same structure and the same mode of operation.
Does changing the composition of elected members every three years really make a big difference or do we need to do more – as we do in the private sector?
Consider your town hall. How many of your elected members have had previous governance experience? How many have managed to run their own business? It may be time to change the governance structure so that appointees have the skills, experience and attributes to tackle the real issues in our cities and provinces.
There is no doubt that local councils are in a privileged position to make the best decisions for their communities, and we should encourage them to do so. For some, the idea of their local council building social housing or administering their school system is radical. How could my council do better when it can’t fix a pothole, you might think.
Local authorities providing social services have worked very successfully in overseas jurisdictions. Maybe it’s time to try it here in New Zealand?
The financing of local authorities redesigned?
The method of financing local authorities must also be rethought. Are rates really the best and only financing option? A proposal emerging from time to time is to give local councils a share of local tourism expenditure to fund tourism infrastructure, or a return of any goods and services tax levied in the area. What prevents us from doing the same in New Zealand?
At the moment, councils seem to have few responsibilities. What if they suddenly have a compelling incentive to deliver the best results for their communities. This creates an incentive to attract residents, attract tourists and encourage growth, and compete with their counterparts. Isn’t that better than the status quo of collect rates, spend and repeat?
If a supercity is on the cards, we should go further and present a case for local government designed to create the results we want to achieve.