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PM Speech: Local Government NZ

Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister

Opening Address to the Annual Conference of Local Government New Zealand

ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre Auckland

9.30 am

Monday 26 July 2004

Thank you for the invitation to open this annual conference of Local Government New Zealand.

Each year our government gives priority to our ministers coming to this conference, and I know that six of my colleagues will be joining you over these three days. This is because our relationship with local government is among our most important relationships. We value it; we want it to work well; and we invest time and commitment in it.

Three weeks ago we were together with the executive of Local Government New Zealand at our eighth joint forum.

I have at previous local government conferences sung the praises of these forums, and I do so again today.

Meeting every six months at ministerial and Local Government New Zealand executive level, we have been able to mandate our officials to work together on a huge number of issues.

That has meant that we are better informed about each other’s priorities and needs, and New Zealand gets better legislation and policy as a result.

I think that together we have created a unique model of a working partnership.

In that partnership, we respect each other’s roles and positions, and we work together in good faith to do the best we can for our communities. That’s important, because the policies followed by central government, and the results we get, impact directly on local government.

When our economic policies are successful – as they are now – and the economy and the population are growing, local government faces the challenges of managing the growth pressures locally.

Pressures arise for new zoning and subdivisions, and for new infrastructure. These of course are better problems to have than the problems of a sluggish economy, a static or declining population, and a fragile rating base.

When central government has proactive social policies – as at present, there is plenty of potential for us to work together on local services, community development, and housing.

In the past when central government has been in retrenchment mode, local government has felt the pressure with its own community services becoming sorely stretched.

The same also applies in reverse: when local government exits a social service like housing, then a government like ours comes under pressure to fill the gap.

At this conference, there are satellite sessions dedicated to economic, social, environmental, and cultural well being.

These are the four pillars of sustainable development – a concept at the very heart of the Local Government Act.

Sustainable development is not only an outcome in itself. It is also a way of thinking, and local government in New Zealand has been at the forefront of that thinking.

What our government and local government across New Zealand share is a belief that government itself is important and that it can make a difference and add value to the economy, to society and community, and to the quality of the environment.

In economic development, for example, local government in many parts of New Zealand got active and stayed active right through the years when central government abdicated responsibility.

That meant that local government was ready and willing when our government came looking for partners to help take our regions ahead.

Over the past four and a half years, economic growth has averaged over 3.5 per cent per annum across New Zealand.

The effects are cumulative and very noticeable around our cities and regions.

And there is new confidence that this time the growth is here to stay and it is sustainable.

That is because we have all got smarter and more strategic.

Our cities and regions have identified their strengths and potential, and then worked with other stakeholders to maximize that potential.

As one of those stakeholders, central government has funded major regional initiatives to build economic capability in the regions. And at the national level, we have rolled out programmes to increase skills training and research and development, and support the growth of our industries, clusters, and exporting.

New Zealand is growing the value of its economy and that is being reflected in the stronger regional economies right across our country.

It is also being reflected in the sharp decline in unemployment, down around forty per cent since we came into office.

In my view, nothing has a greater impact on community morale than seeing the dole queues drop away and people moving into work, and it is one of the achievements of which I am most proud.

In our joint central government - local government forums, we discuss many areas of legislation and policy which impact very directly on local government’s responsibilities. The session at this conference on councils as rule makers and sheriffs covers this territory !

The past year has seen several major pieces of legislation which have created new work for local government or have increased the scope of its work.

The new dog control legislation in my view was long overdue in giving local government the teeth it needed to deal to vicious and dangerous dogs.

Local government has taken on new responsibilities with respect to gambling and to the regulation of prostitution.

The new Building Act will have implications for local government, as will the foreshore and seabed legislation.

The way now seems clear for government to bring in legislation for the new aquaculture regime, again creating new responsibilities for local government.

Amendments to the Resource Management Act are being prepared for introduction later this year.

We are looking for more certainty and efficiency in the way the Act operates, and a reduction in costs and delays.

We would like to eliminate as much as possible opportunities for abuse of the process by vexatious litigants.

We are looking at the balance struck between national and local interests.

While no planning process can give certainty of outcome, we can aim at greater certainty around processes, timeframes, and costs.

Water issues are looming ever larger on the government’s agenda in several ways.

We identified water allocation and quality as key issues in the Sustainable Development Programme of Action released early last year. Three substantial background papers on these issues have just been released. The Ministry of Health is reviewing Drinking Water Standards with a view to introducing a Bill to give our standards legislative backing. Our standards are modeled on the World Health Organisation guidelines and represent accepted international practice. The Ministry for the Environment is preparing Raw Drinking Water Standards, and technical workshops on the proposals will be held next month. Flood Waters. River control, flood protection, and catchment issues are very much on the minds of all levels of government, following the devastating floods in February in the lower North Island, and now the floods in the Whakatane and Opotiki Districts.

Recently central government chief executives and chief executives of regional councils held their second Environment Forum. Flood and river control was on the agenda, with questions being raised about design and building standards for flood infrastructure and about the adequacy of the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act 1941.

The regional chief executives have formed a working party to study and report on the issues. I will be expecting the relevant central government chief executives to stay engaged and ensure that central government has good advice on any updating of policy and legislation which may be required.

This year’s floods were the first major emergencies since the new Civil Defence and Emergency Management leglislation came into force.

In the Manawatu region, the Regional Council, Horizons Manawatu, was ready to exercise the new responsibilities made possible by the legislation, with, I believe, beneficial effects.

The levels of government support set by the standard recovery plan in the mid 1990s have had to be exceeded in order to meet the range of needs which arose from the February emergency.

Our government took a pragmatic and flexible approach, with a purpose designed response, especially to avoid longlasting damage to the viability of farm businesses in the area.

We are now in the process of assessing what response, beyond the immediate emergency response, will be needed in the eastern Bay of Plenty.

In so many areas nowadays, a whole of government approach to dealing with policy responses and solutions goes far further than just central government co-ordinating its own agencies and departments.

Now “whole of government” means central, regional, and local government working collaboratively.

What was acknowledged in the discussion at our last forum was that while central government has increasingly been looking to local government as a partner, there have been significant cumulative effects on local government from its growing responsibilities.

Particularly for smaller councils, this raises both capacity and capability issues.

Now our joint working group of officials is looking at key questions like: what is the minimum level of capability which should be expected of all local authorities, and does central government have a role in lifting the capability of less well-resourced councils?

The reality is that the economic, social, and environmental issues we must deal with cannot be handled by central government alone. We have to work together to find solutions.

Consideration is now being given by our officials as to whether we need a new framework and/or guidelines governing the development of regulatory policy affecting local government.

The aim would be to develop clearer principles about the circumstances in which local government would take on new regulatory roles and functions.

Related to this is an examination by the Working Group of the problems councils are having finding the resources to fund infrastructure and meet community expectations.

Real affordability issues are emerging, especially for small councils and for those with large numbers of less affluent citizens.

In the last three years, our government has provided more funding tools, including:

a greater ability to levy targeted rates and collect development contributions, the sewerage scheme subsidy, and the Housing Initiative Fund.

More work is being done on the affordability issues, and how they might be addressed.

Conclusion

Over the four and a half years that I have led our government as Prime Minister, I have come to appreciate even more how critical it is to build strong relations between central and local government.

It is hard now to imagine how New Zealand could function without a high degree of collaboration between the levels of government.

As I have outlined, collaboration has moved beyond specific issues and into an overall examination of the circumstances in which regulatory roles and functions should move to local government and the capability and resourcing of local government to carry out their enhanced roles.

In this sense, we are together “designing the 21st century” as this conference’s theme exhorts us to do.

Many present at this conference will be seeking re-election in October – while others will be hanging up their boots after a job well done.

To you all, thank you for your commitment to public and community service.

To those continuing, you can be confident that participation in local government will continue to be both stimulating and rewarding as the sector rises to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

I now have pleasure in declaring this annual conference of Local Government New Zealand open.

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