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Crisis of confidence looms in local government

Don Brash MP
National Party Leader
18 July 2006

Crisis of confidence looms in local government

Address to Local Government New Zealand Annual Conference, Wellington.

The theme of this conference, “Leading Communities”, begs the question: “Leading communities where?” Is it to a bright future, or up the garden path?

No one would suppose that there’s a final destination that we can arrive at and then rest. It’s the direction of travel that’s important.

As I see it, it’s towards local communities that enjoy cleaner environments, tidier streets, better infrastructure and facilities that are of a standard that people can feel good about. Communities in which families, businesses, cultural groups, men and women can go about achieving their goals with a minimum of fuss and perhaps even a bit of encouragement.

Local government has been given a leadership role within New Zealand society, in the areas over which it has influence. Good local government, that provides efficient and top quality services in its core activities, can shine like a beacon to guide central government. Leading councils are enabling councils, whose first instinct is to say “yes”.

They contribute to an environment of consistency, and certainty that attracts progress and development.

The men and women who lead local authorities also have the power to inspire communities and to build civic pride.
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The style of their leadership is critical.

In my experience, good leadership allows others to flourish; it inspires, challenges and encourages. In the absence of warfare or some similar crisis, the best leaders are humble. They know when and in what areas people want to be led, and where they want to be left free to find their own way.

The alternative can be an overbearing form of leadership that demands obedience, and that stifles free thought and innovation, that dictates rather than leads.

Some, of course, are more free to lead than others. The current Labour Government has made a great show of giving local government its wings with the so-called power of general competence. Yet they’ve given with one hand and taken with the other.

Local government in New Zealand today reminds me of frustrated middle management. It works hard to lead in its area, but is beset by constant demands from above. It’s hard to lead when you’re knee deep in form filling and administration prescribed by the lady in the big chair upstairs.

Many of the 60 recent pieces of legislation affecting local government that Labour’s generated have obliged local authorities to adopt a more interfering and meddlesome kind of leadership. And that has to be very bad news.

And because most councils are so worn out and broke from all the tasks Wellington has imposed on them, they’ve got little time or money left with which to lift their horizons. General competence is, in most instances, a cynical sham.

But the average Kiwi isn’t too concerned about general competence, or indeed about local government’s aspirations for leadership.

The young family with a mortgage, the widow on a fixed income, the couple saving for retirement - they just want to know if there’s any limit to how high their rates bill will climb.

In about two years’ time, my colleagues and I intend to form the next government of New Zealand.

That government will be required to provide leadership as New Zealand confronts the single biggest challenge facing our country: our poor level of economic performance relative to our international peers.

Does it matter?

Of course it does.

The performance of our economy in the years ahead will dictate the quality of education, healthcare, roading and energy infrastructure, and the levels of retirement income we can offer our citizens.

Right now that offering is well below that of many of the nations we used to regard as our equals - well below that of our nearest neighbour, Australia, and declining in a relative sense as each year passes.

It will simply not be possible for this country to dramatically increase its economic performance without both central and local government very substantially improving the way in which they serve our community.

Today, I want to be very open with you about the expectations the next National Government will have of your sector, and what those expectations will mean.

I want to do this because I acknowledge that, in recent years, there has grown a stronger sense of partnership between your organisation and central government.

I do not wish, in any way, to diminish that sense of partnership.

The next National Government will, however, want to re-focus it.

That’s why it’s important that I should, in the spirit of good partnership, be transparent and honest with you today.

Fundamental to the approach of the next National Government is an understanding that wealth and prosperity are created by the efforts of private individuals and groups, not by central or local government.

In recent years, I believe we have seen both central and local government become too introverted in their thinking - we have started to believe that it’s all about us, when in fact it is all about them - the hard-working individuals who make investment and employment decisions, who create our future prosperity.

We are here to serve them.

And too often we forget it.

Over the past six years we have seen a major blow-out in public sector employment in this country. By definition, that has unnecessarily constrained the growth of the private sector - the wealth creators - in their capacity to fund investment in growth, innovation and new jobs.

Central government has been by far the major offender in that respect. Just try to rent office space in central Wellington if you don’t believe me!

While the overall level of state sector growth is bad enough, when you look at where the growth has occurred, the picture looks even worse:

Over the past six years:

Staffing in the Ministry of Arts Culture and Heritage has increased by 620%, in Pacific Island Affairs by 79%. The Department of Labour, long the bane of many a business, has grown by 62%.

These figures suggest there is something seriously wrong with our priorities.
As a consequence, New Zealand has under-performed economically what should have been possible in the past five or six years, during the best international economic conditions in many decades.

The next government of New Zealand will ensure that there’s a much stronger focus on those areas of government activity that provide infrastructure and service for the wealth generators and job creators in our community.

Local and regional government, too, have been part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Today I bring you a blunt message on behalf of your ratepayers. That message is: get out there and stand up for yourselves. Do not allow yourselves to be meekly steamrollered by Labour's legislative juggernaut. You can’t let central government continue with its bureaucratic buck-passing. You must tell Labour that your ratepayers simply will not accept any more unnecessary costs being loaded on to them.

Rate rises averaging 43% over the past six years, and forecasts of greater increases ahead, have caused such public disquiet that local body rating and performance has become one of the hottest topics around the country.

Anyone who’s cast even a brief glance at the New Zealand Herald in the past week will be able to confirm this.

It’s my view that New Zealand is currently on the brink of a crisis of confidence in local government.

I’ve already conceded that much of the blame for this may fairly be laid at the feet of central government.

But, whatever the cause, you can hardly blame an ordinary citizen in Auckland City getting more than a little exercised at the prospect of the projected 21% rise in rates in that city over the next three years.

Or Christchurch residents facing an increase of 25% over the next three years.

There’s a serious problem looming here.

And we have a shared interest in solving it.

The next National Government will want to work with local government to get some order and rationality into rates.

And there are some real areas of opportunity for us to do so.

The Long-term Council Community Plan process, for example, has, by some estimates, cost up to $100 million across the sector, just to get plans to the draft stage.

Then we could add the prostitution legislation, the administrative costs of the rates rebate scheme (which I am told has added $160,000 to Auckland City’s overheads alone), and Building Act requirements, just to mention a few.

An immediate priority for an incoming National Government will be to work with your organisation to identify how quick, meaningful gains can be made in this area.

But it’s not just the cost side of the argument that’s impacting on New Zealand’s economic performance.

The quality and timeliness of the service provided are arguably even more important.

In fast-growing economies like Ireland and Singapore, efficient, constructive, timely turnaround of planning applications is a key component of their economic success.

The time currently taken in many local and regional authorities to deal with both major public infrastructure applications and routine private business or domestic applications is simply incompatible with the need for a world class economy.

We pay more than we need to, and applications take much longer than they should, in part because of the bloody-mindedness of the Labour Government over the RMA and other relevant legislation.

With the money and resources we have available, we could be making much more progress on roads and other key pieces of infrastructure. But to do so we need to deal with the worst excesses of the RMA process.

That doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. It simply means that the pendulum has to swing back to common sense and practicality - and quickly. We also need to weed out the divisive references to Maori cultural and spiritual values in the RMA.

Since the late 1990s, National has seen the need to curb the excesses that the RMA has encouraged; Labour, by contrast, has beefed up the Act. They stubbornly insist there is no problem, and leave New Zealanders to suffer the higher bills and needless delays which are the consequence of their failure to act.

But I can tell you that as I move around the country I hear far too many stories from angry citizens regarding the quality of service from local authority officers.

Stories like the Queenstown man who, after waiting six months for a consent to put up a sign, decided to simply mow the sign into his paddock. Although the sign was only visible from above, the council told him he required a consent because it was visible from a public place.

The same council compliance manager has also ruled that three valuable sculptures - on private property and not visible from the road - must be retrospectively consented because he considers them structures and they break the two metre height limit the local council enforces.

Or the architect who in six weeks managed to site measure a building, complete the working drawings and specifications and liaise with engineers over a new building - but was then told by the local council that the building consent would take a further 14 weeks - when the statutory period in the Building Act is only 20 working days.

Or the Wellington store that sells small bags of sweets along with Lotto tickets and other things. Its food handling consisted only of transferring sweets from bulk bags to small bags, but an over-zealous inspector wanted them to install full kitchen and washing facilities.

New Zealand, ladies and gentlemen, has no prospect of keeping its brightest and best young people, no prospect of climbing back up the ladder of developed nations, while we hear stories like these.

My hope is that local authorities will remain inspired to stay in trim and to play the role they were meant to play as efficiently as possible.

The dog chipping episode shows that the Opposition doesn’t have to wait another two years for a general election to be effective in winding back some of the more ridiculous extensions of power that Labour has imposed on the sector. 6

We’re dealing with a central government coalition that is held together by neither principle nor unified vision. It’s long since run out of sensible ideas, and we’re more than happy to step into the void.

With Labour, local government faces more hospital-passes and demands from central government, the same old RMA, more tension with ratepayers, and the possibility in the not-too-distant future of some sort of rates revolt, accompanied perhaps by a destructive reaction against the sector as a whole.

The alternative is a fresh determination from the National Party to restore sustainability to local government. We are determined to wind back the unnecessary legislative demands in order to give councils a realistic chance of keeping their rates under control.

The National Party is determined to form a government, in a little over two years’ time, in which central government agencies will be there to serve the people, not manage the people.

And that government will expect no less of local government.

To the extent that Parliament has itself caused your problem, we will fix it, and fix it quickly.

To the extent that it is your councillors or council staff who are the obstacle, we will expect you to fix it quickly.

If we are to have a world-class economy, funding world-class services, there can be no compromise in that respect.

Just as central government agencies need to become focused, professional and efficient in delivering service to the community, so must regional and local government, if New Zealand is to become one of the success stories of the early part of the 21st century.

I know that won’t be easy. There will be difficult trade-offs. But we need to restore some realism.

Local government has great resources; its leaders, many of them in this room, have great talent. We all want to do our best for our communities.

Many of us have big dreams.

We need to remember to leave enough money in the pockets of ratepayers, and taxpayers, so they can afford to achieve some dreams of their own.

Ends

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