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Chris Carter: Speech to NZ Planners Association

Chris Carter: Speech to NZ Planners Association AGM

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for asking me to speak at your annual general meeting.

It is a pleasure to be here today because as the new Local Government Minister, I am well aware of the role of planners, resource managers and environmental practitioners have in the day to day functioning of our communities, and the future evolution of those communities. Up until fairly recently, New Zealand has been a country of low population density with a large rural sector.

However, increased urbanisation and rapid population growth in some areas, particularly here in Auckland, have alerted us all to the fact that we are not exempt from development issues that plague other countries - issues such as pollution, water and transport problems.

Planners are instrumental in efforts to tackle those issues. The need for your skills is only intensifying. Before coming to speak to you tonight, I had a look at your institute's website. I was intrigued to see the similarity between the goals your organisation aspires to and some of those of the Labour-Progressive Government.

I am referring to two of your goals in particular.

First, the goal of "promoting the conservation, protection and enhancement of the natural and human environment".

Second, the goal of promoting the means by which community aspirations and values are reflected in public and private decision-making on physical, social and economic change and development. My Government is also committed to the conservation and protection of our environment - just look at the way we have increased funding for the Department of Conservation, just look at our ratification of the Kyoto protocol.

We are also committed to giving the aspirations and values of each and every community in New Zealand a voice.

We believe that our country is at its strongest and most dynamic when our local communities are vibrant, harmonious, tolerant and above all active. This is most evident in the new Local Government Act, legislation which has a direct bearing on your work. Tonight I want to spend most of my time talking about that piece of legislation.

As many of you will be aware, the Local Government Act was passed before Christmas. It is a key part of a much-needed overhaul of outdated and contradictory legislation governing local authorities.

The new Act abandons a prescriptive approach to what regional councils and territorial authorities can and can't do. It does so because the point of having local government is that local people are generally best placed to make decisions affecting their local community.

Prescriptions can never keep up with the pace of change and ultimately end up curtailing local decision-making.

At the heart of the new Act, is the idea that a council should not be preoccupied with wasting large quantities of time and money determining what it is legally able to do. Rather a council should be focussing on what is the best range of actions it can take to enhance the well-being of its community.

The new Act provides councils with more flexible but not unfettered powers, and places upon them carefully balanced requirements to consult with their communities.

The Act also promotes a sustainable development approach to local decision-making reflected throughout its procedures and processes. I would urge you to read, if you have not already done so, a document entitled The Government's Approach to Sustainable Development published in August last year.

This document lays out four key aspects of a sustainable development approach.

It is people centred, it considers the long-term as well as the short-term, it takes into account the effect of decisions on social, economic, environmental and cultural aspects of well-being, and it promotes participation and partnership. Under the Local Government Act councils are expected to take a broad role in promoting the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities, in the present and for the future.

Section 14 demands that a local authority should ensure prudent stewardship and the efficient and effective use of its community's resources. It reads: "In taking a sustainable development approach, a local authority should take into account--- - the social, economic, and cultural well-being of people and communities; and - the need to maintain and enhance the quality of the environment; and - the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations."

In many respects, the Act brings planners well and truely out of the closet. It sets up two levels of discussion councils must undertake with their community.

First there is a requirement for councils to facilitate by 2006 a broad planning process that determines what their local people want for their community and where they see its priorities for social, cultural, environmental and economic development.

How councils choose to conduct this exercise is up to them, the Act does not prescribe a specific process.

But it does demand that councils identify and talk to other relevant organisations and groups capable of influencing the identification or promotion of community goals.

The Act insists that councils conduct their community outcomes process in such a way that it encourages the public to contribute.

The idea is the goals identified in this exercise are owned by the community as whole not just by the local authority. Councils will have to identify the particular activities they think they can undertake to contribute to the achievement of the community's goals. These activities will be laid out in a major strategic planning document - the Long Term Council Community Plan, which I'll discuss shortly.

No matter how hard they try, councils will never be capable of achieving every community outcome themselves. Other groups in the community, such as the business and voluntary sectors, will also need to participate. The process of identifying goals will identify opportunities for partnerships, sometimes with central government.

We believe that local solutions derived from partnerships foster innovation, and the networks drawn upon to develop those local solutions foster healthy communities. The community outcomes process is not as revolutionary as it might seem. Like most things in the Act it is similar to practices already undertaken by many councils, such as those involved in the 6 Cities report.

Which brings me to the second level of discussion and planning councils must conduct under the new Act.

As I indicated earlier, once a council has identified the goals of its community, it must get down to the nitty gritty of planning how it can best contribute to them. It does this through what is called a Long Term Council Community Plan. The intention of this plan is that is should be a comprehensive document prepared at least every 3 years looking forward over the coming 10 years.

The key aims of it are to provide a basis for integrated decision-making, to ensure co-ordination of resources by a local authority, and to provide a long-term focus for decision-making - a sustainable development approach

While the Long term Council Community Plan is a new initiative in the Act, once again it will not be entirely unfamiliar to all councils. Many have used the requirement of the Long Term Financial Strategy under old legislation to implement some form of strategic planning already. The new requirement builds on those efforts.

In deciding on its long term plan a council will have to consult again with local people using a Special Consultative Procedure built into the Act.

This procedure is designed to ensure "significant decisions" by councils are rigorously and openly debated with the public. The threshold of a "significant decision" has been carefully set to minimise the costs of consultation. It is intended to include asset acquisitions and divestments, such as council housing stock, shares or listed infrastructure assets, and anything else the council and its community deem significant.

In general, there has been a move to encourage community consultation as early as possible in the planning cycle - to obtain directional input even before draft plans or proposals are produced.

This has two key advantages: first it empowers communities of interest to have their say upfront in the policy-making process, when more potential for flexibility exists. Second, and just as important, it again minimises compliance costs. It follows that there is no point in councils producing elaborate draft plans in advance of taking the pulse of community opinion.

My belief is that you, as planners, will find the Local Government Act a breath of fresh air. It carries some challenges for you but it also carries immense opportunity.

The Act is based on a realistic and far more sophisticated, view of the world than the old legislation.

It recognises the importance of community identity, adaptability and self-determination as strengths in a global environment.

It recognises the need to plan for the complex developmental issues that confront us.

I hope we can all work together to make the most of it.

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