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Jim Sutton Speech To Rural Mayors

Hon Jim Sutton Speech Notes

Rural and Provincial section of Local Government, Wellington

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for the invitation to speak at this sector group meeting.

During the course of this conference you have heard from the Prime Minister and a number of my cabinet colleagues that the Government is giving a high priority to local government reform and to developing a stronger partnership between central and local government.

We also recognise that you are increasingly taking on the role of mediator and broker between central government and local communities of interest.

I believe that this mediation role is particularly important in the rural context, as communities are widely dispersed and they face critical issues related to basic service provision. To tackle these issues, rural communities need an effective voice and I believe councils have a big part to play in this regard.

I'd like to talk about how local authorities interact with primary producers and rural communities.

This interface can take a number of forms, from regulatory consents through to service provision and economic encouragement. Each of these roles is important as they have a bearing on the structure and health of a community. A planning environment conducive to sustainable economic development will encourage primary sector investment, while community initiatives to find solutions to underlying social and economic problems will help ensure the survival of these communities.

Finding the right mix of policies is difficult. It requires on-going communication between local authorities, primary sector producers and rural communities.

I am impressed with the efforts many local authorities have made to facilitate economic development and in the case of regional councils, their efforts to disseminate technical information on issues such as water and soil management.

For many local authorities, the move into economic promotion has been a recent venture.

What is particularly pleasing is that councils are seeking economic solutions from their communities, rather than imposing external models that may or may not be appropriate for a specific situation.

Encouraging local communities to identify the options for their community ensures a high level of buy-in on projects.

Two of the initiatives that I have followed with interest in recent years have been the 'Cool Crops' and 'Topo-climate' projects developed by the Southland District Council. This commitment to supporting the primary sector is beginning to pay significant dividends for the community.

The Cool Crops project is providing research and demonstration areas on the alternative crop options for southern New Zealand, while the soil and climate mapping data from the topo-climate study is providing landowners with information on which to base their decisions. The Southland model is not the only way ? but to my knowledge, it was the leader and deserves our gratitude and respect for that.

I have also noted that a number of councils are financially supporting primary sector groupings. A long-standing example of this has been the Clutha Agricultural Development Board and more recently the industry clusters being developed by the Waitaki District Council, through 'Whitestone Waitaki'.

The Clutha Agricultural Development Board has a proven record of promotion, technical training, leadership development and district economic development. I am pleased that Government has been able to support this work through the provision of Sustainable Farming Fund project grants.

I would encourage other councils with similar sector organisations to apply to this Fund, as it seeks to support innovation and sustainable rural development.

I am also encouraged that the focus in economic development is moving from achieving economic gains for individual councils to working in cross boundary and regional situations. So much more can be gained by pooling your resources, than by working in isolation.

To a somewhat more contentious area of local government activity, that of resource management?

I receive more mail on this aspect of local government than any other. As you will be aware, there remains considerable anxiety among landowners and primary sector businesses as to the application of the Resource Management Act at a district and regional level. Variations in approach and differing levels of regulatory control have created considerable confusion among those seeking consents. Landowners are often uncertain as to the level of information required for consents, in particular, the need for environmental audits and assessments.

As a consequence of this, there can be lengthy processing delays, while the appropriate information is prepared. This leads to additional costs.

The variation in district and regional plans also creates a perception that applications will be treated differently by neighbouring authorities. This has significant implications for investment and employment.

The Government recognises that this inconsistency stems from insufficient national guidance subsequent to the passage of the Act in 1991.

To correct that, we have an Amendment Bill before the House that will emphasise national instruments, such as national policy statements and national environmental standards. The Government is also seeking in this amendment to reduce the time and cost delays inherent in the current legislation.

These measures should assist your planning committees in overcoming the current community concerns about the consistency of approach in district and regional plans.

It is also important, however, that efforts are made to more fully inform landowners and primary sector businesses of the planning requirements they need to meet when seeking a resource consent.

In reviewing the letters I receive on this issue, landowner frustration often stems from a lack of information and a feeling of powerlessness. This can only be overcome by more regular communication with sector groups and landowners. In this way, landowners will feel that they are part of the planning process rather than working against it.

Moving now to a more direct form of council interaction with communities, I want to briefly discuss the provision of community facilities, such as libraries, halls and recreational complexes. These facilities tend to play a central role in the life of smaller communities, as points of contact and social interaction. In effect, they help to sustain the social fabric of communities.

In most cases, there is a high level of voluntary input. This can be to maintain the physical standard of the facilities or to operate the actual services, as tends to occur in the case of libraries.

The critical role of these facilities is recognised by most local authorities and their service agencies.

However, community leaders tell me about situations where service volunteers are not being given equal access to resources or they face delays receiving material.

This situation tends to occur more regularly in larger urban authorities where services, such as libraries, are frequently centralised. There, the provision of publications to a distant library is seen as an onerous task, rather than a basic service. I have noted one situation where the volunteers have to make, at their own expense, a round trip of 160 kilometres to collect publications, and they have to meet strict return deadlines. They are treated essentially as borrowers and not as part of the council service.

Obstacles such as this depress the volunteer spirit and can quickly reduce the efficiency of council services in rural areas. I suggest councils should pay close attention to how rural facilities are integrated into their overall service network. We should try to avoid allowing two tier systems of service provision to develop. The social health of our rural communities and the economic sustainability of the primary production sector are mutually dependent.

Finally, I would like to address the issue of rural representation in council decision making and the related matter of rural rating.

Since the 1989 reorganisation of local authorities, I have seen regular comments about the limited voice rural communities have at the council table. These concerns are expressed most frequently in situations where rural communities have been absorbed into large urban conglomerations. There is a concern in these situations that the 'rural voice' is swamped by urban or broader opinion.

One important tool to overcome this sense of political powerlessness is the community board structure.

A number of local authorities have made effective use of this mechanism, to provide the communities in their districts with a distinct voice. It is important these boards are not simply talk-fests. The boards need to have a quantifiable role, in order to assure their communities that they are an effective avenue for addressing local concerns.

I am supportive of the approach taken in districts, where the boards provide not only a forum to table local views, but they have allocated administrative functions, with substantial discretionary spending.

The Government is supportive of this delegation of authority. I believe it would be appropriate for many councils to look seriously at extending the coverage of community boards and examining if there are functions that they could undertake.

Some councils have also established permanent consultative structures with communities and key sector groups. This provides a mechanism for feeding rural opinion into council decision making.

Other possible ways of raising community concerns with councils would be for a portion of council meetings to be held in rural areas and for committee agendas to be distributed more widely among rural community groups.

The concern that rural ratepayers do not have the critical mass to sway council opinion is an issue that needs to be tackled, as it has important ramifications for local democracy. It is essential that rural communities know they have access to the decision making process and that they can influence local outcomes.

In a similar vein, there is sometimes a perception among rural landowners that they incur a disproportionate share of the rating burden and that they are supporting the provision of urban services, which they have limited and in cases no access to.

This attitude is strongest in those districts where rural ratepayers constituent a significant proportion of the district's capital value.

This is another situation where councils need to work with the relevant sector groups, to show that the rate setting procedures are transparent and equitable, and that 'rate comparisons' can be made between agricultural, residential and commercial properties.

I applaud the approach taken, for example, by the Hastings District Council to assess the cost of services in their urban and rural rating areas and to provide ratepayers with clearly itemised information sheets.

The need for transparent rating procedures is likely to become more important, with the implementation of a 'power of general competence', as it will give councils the ability to move into new areas of service and community provision. As property value rating will remain the principal source of revenue for these new activities, it is critical that local authorities can demonstrate where the burden and the benefits of these services will lie.

The major theme which has run through this address and which I want to leave you with is this: District and regional councils interact with rural communities and primary producers at a number of distinct levels. Through this interaction you have a significant capacity to improve the economic development and the social cohesion of our rural society.

Getting the right mix of policies is a difficult task, but this can be made easier by working closely with communities and bringing them into your decision making.

In closing, I'd like to re-iterate that there is a strong desire within this Government to give local authorities the ability to respond more effectively to the needs of their communities. We are also very aware of the commitment you make to improve the quality of life within your districts.

Thank you for listening this morning and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.

Office of Hon Jim Sutton

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