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Brash Speech: To Local Govt New Zealand

Don Brash Speech: An Address To Local Government New Zealand By National Party Leader Don Brash

A National Perspective On Local Government

President Basil Morrison, Chief Executive Eugene Bowen, Mayors and Councillors.

Thank you for the invitation to address your conference this morning and for the opportunity to outline National’s perspective on key issues of importance to local government in New Zealand.

May I, before I begin, pay a special tribute to the work of local governments in the Manawatu and the Bay of Plenty in dealing with the serious flooding which has devastated vast areas of both provinces this year. Only those who have seen the floods at first hand can have any idea of the trail of destruction left by both major floods, and the hard work and dedication by the local governments in the areas most badly affected represent New Zealanders at their most effective.

My motivation in coming to politics from the Reserve Bank was a deep concern about New Zealand’s direction and particularly about the widening gap in living standards between Australians and New Zealanders. The current government’s programme will not see New Zealand making up any lost ground. This year’s Budget has Treasury projecting lower growth rates for the next ten years than in the last ten years. That is simply not good enough.

Local government in New Zealand has a very significant role to play in helping us achieve our goal of lifting New Zealand’s living standards. Your annual expenditure of over $3.5 billion represents some 3% of Gross Domestic Product. The value of the assets for which you are responsible exceeds the capitalised value of the New Zealand Stock Exchange. You also play key regulatory roles in areas like resource management, health standards and building laws. Your councils perform an invaluable role at the grass roots of our democracy.

A future National Government will need a close and constructive working relationship with local government for National to achieve our ambitious goals for New Zealand.

That is why I have appointed a senior and experienced spokesperson to this role. Dr Nick Smith has himself served in local government as a District Councillor and in many portfolios as a Minister of the Crown. He is also National’s Environment spokesperson, focussing on important work in reforming the Resource Management Act, in which the linkage with local government is critical.

I have also appointed Sandra Goudie, our Coromandel MP, as an Associate Local Government spokesperson to work with Nick to help build the relationships that will be so important to us in Government. Nick and Sandra’s presence at your conference shows their commitment to working with you.

I intend to take a lead role myself in developing the important relationship with local government. That is why I have attempted to meet, whenever I am travelling around the country, as many mayors and councillors as possible. I am also committed to retaining the regular forum between local government leaders and Government Ministers so there is a whole-of-government approach to the interaction between central and local government.

I emphasise the importance of relationship building because it is the basis of good governance. While I want to outline to you some specific policy views from National, we do want to work with you as we finalise our policy over coming months.

National’s broad approach to local government policy is as much as possible to let locally elected community leaders get on with the job of providing good quality services at least cost to your communities. Our worry is that, far too often, central government has become overly prescriptive vis-à-vis local government in ways that don’t work and which just add costs for the ratepayer.

Words like “partnership”, and phrases like “the power of general competence”, have been overused to the point where they have become meaningless. It seems strange that the new Local Government Act, supposedly conferring the power of general competence on local government, puts so many restrictions on what councils can and cannot do. The prohibition on charging for library services, for example, or the restriction on ownership of water systems and many other similar provisions, has central government micro-managing councils. The dog control laws repeat this mistake by requiring every council to microchip their dogs, and even to set the fine for all manner of offences. Councils are quite capable of making these decisions and National would provide empowering legislation with maximum fines that leaves councils to get on and manage what is an inherently local issue.

We have also watched with disappointment the Government’s mishandling of the issue over casting votes at the council table. National consistently took the view that this should be left to councils to determine, in the same way that Parliament determines its own standing orders, and we are pleased that eventually the Government came to our point of view.

I particularly want to express concern at the very tight criteria laid down by the current Government for determining ward boundaries. We do not believe that these criteria give sufficient flexibility to ensure recognition of communities of interest. We opposed this provision in the Local Government Act; we tried to amend it with the most recent Bill; and we commit to changing it in Government because communities of interest are so important in local government.

A key area of reform for National on becoming Government will be the Resource Management Act. We remain committed to the core principles of this legislation, notably sustainability, an integrated approach to resource management and a focus on the environmental effects of development. However, we believe the Act requires substantial amendment if we are to meet the infrastructure and growth needs of the New Zealand economy.

The New Zealand Forest Industry Council noted recently that there are 21 new wood-processing plants under development in Australia but none in New Zealand. They attributed this largely to problems with our Resource Management Act. Imagine the nationwide outcry if the Wallabies had cleaned us up 21 - 0 in the Bledisloe Cup. While speed became a bit of an issue around that rugby game, it is the lack of speed that has lead to so much concern about the Resource Management Act.

It is just not acceptable that it often takes several times longer to get resource consent for a new road than it takes to actually build it.

Nor should we pretend that the environment is winning from these costly delays. Projects like the new Canterbury land-fill - that is a huge environmental improvement on the existing tip - has taken years and $10 million to get a consent. Both the economy and the environment are losing out. We must do better if we are to aspire to be a leading first world nation.

We are frustrated that National’s attempts to reform the Resource Management Act in 1999 were rejected by the current Government when it came to office at the end of that year. The Simon Upton Bill was well researched and widely consulted on, and there would not be the head of steam for reform today had those changes been adopted. The tragedy is that not only was the Bill rejected but also the belated changes that were finally made in 2003 actually made the Act worse and not better.

In May this year - ironically after the shift in polls and u-turns on a number of other fronts by the Government - the Government announced a new review of the Resource Management Act, with a new Minister David Benson-Pope replacing Marian Hobbs.

National has welcomed this review on the basis that a review is better late than never, although we are very doubtful the Government has the courage to make the scale of changes that are necessary.

Our concern has been amply confirmed by Ministers’ comments to this conference suggesting that only minimal change is being considered.

It would be easy for National to sit back and wait for the Government to declare its hand, but instead we have publicly outlined the areas in which we want to see change in the RMA.

We want to see the decision-making process streamlined, with the option of direct referral to the Environment Court for major proposals. We want both the councils and the Environment Court to have the power to limit vexatious and frivolous objections. We want to see the complexity of the Act reduced. We believe the Maori and Treaty provisions need to be rewritten so that the culture and values of all New Zealanders are put on an equal footing. We also want to see a greater use of national standards, and a rewrite of the principles of the Act to better recognise the need for public infrastructure and economic development.

Addressing this issue quickly and decisively is vital for local government and for New Zealand. National will introduce a substantial Resource Management Amendment Bill within three months of being elected to Government and have it passed within nine months.

Local government also has a key role in transport. The traffic congestion problems in not just this city of Auckland but in centres like Tauranga, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch must be addressed. The problems of traffic congestion have got worse since Labour came to office in 1999 and looking to the future I do not believe current policies will address this critical issue for your communities.

The new Land Transport Management Act passed last year is a major impediment to speedy road construction. It is the sort of law you pass when you want to stop building new roads. This very prescriptive legislation will limit private sector participation in road building and the extra obligations to consult with iwi just add to the problems created by the Resource Management Act. The legislation was a sop to the Greens and will need to be substantially rewritten if we are to make progress.

There is also a critical issue about funding. The Government would have you believe that never before has so much been spent on roads. The records tell a different story. In National’s last year in office, $135 million was spent on new roads and state highways in Auckland. That total was not reached again for the next three years under the Labour Government, and spending fell as low as $82 million in 2000-2001. Only in 2002-2003 did spending by Transfund on new roads in Auckland exceed that of National and that by just $5 million - less than the amount needed to cover the effects of inflation over the intervening years - and this despite an increase in the government’s revenue from petrol taxes of 32% over the same period.

National is committed to putting the funding of the roading network onto a sound basis. National will invest more on roads, and we want to gradually move away from such heavy dependence on rates on property as a source of the funds to build roads to a greater use of user charges and congestion pricing. This would be much fairer to ratepayers.

Funding is not the key constraint at this time, as shown by the $250 million in Transfund’s kitty at the end of the financial year, but if necessary we would look to divert more of the money that now goes into government coffers from petrol taxes into roads. We are committed to completing the Auckland corridor network within 10 years of our election.

A major issue linked to the new Local Government Act is the record increase in rates during the last year. Statistics New Zealand has identified a 10.4% increase in local government rates in the year to June 2004 during the first full year of operation of the new Act. By a large margin, this increase is the biggest for any year in the last 10 years. The 10.4% increase is more than four times the increase in the Consumer Price Index for the same period, of 2.4%.

This increase is simply not acceptable. It is making budgeting for families on fixed incomes more difficult and it is undermining the competitiveness of New Zealand businesses.

Responsibility for this record increase rests partly with the Government. Many groups, including the National Party, warned the Government that the new local government legislation would add costs for the ratepayer. The new gaming, dog control, building and many other statutes that add new responsibilities or extend existing responsibilities without funding have added significantly to the rates burden. We cannot allow this situation to continue.

National wants to work with the local government sector on reducing the burden on local governments of central government legislation. We don’t want to play the blame game. We want to work with you on how we can ensure ratepayers get efficient services at least cost. We propose establishing a joint working party between Local Government New Zealand and an incoming National Government to review the full range of local government legislation to reduce the cost to your ratepayers.

We have also heard local governments’ concern about financial pressures and the limits of existing funding channels. We are particularly sympathetic to councils in respect of the huge rating burden of roads. In looking to the future, we would want to talk with local government about how the costs of maintaining the roading network can be met more by road users and less by ratepayers, as I’ve indicated.

We need to revisit the consultation and planning requirements of the new Local Government Act. We believe the law is too prescriptive in the degree to which councils must consult and we are concerned about the costs this imposes on councils.

We also want to revisit the provisions that require councils to consult with both their community and with iwi - this is surely bizarre. It implies that somehow Maori are not part of the community, and of course they are. We also note with concern the increasing practice, flowing from the new Act, of Maori requiring payment for this consultation, whereas few other groups, if any, are paid for expressing their views to councils.

National will be applying the policy of one standard of citizenship to local government, and this includes abolishing the special provisions in the Local Government Electoral Act that provide for separate Maori representation on councils.

New Zealand is a beautiful country. We are blessed with so many natural resources and our people have many skills and talents. We all have a responsibility to work together to ensure New Zealand can be the very best country on earth. It is a challenge the National Party relishes.

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