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Concerns over Local Government Bill Widely Shared

Local Government Forum: Concerns over Local Government Bill Widely Shared

Awareness of the implications the Local Government Bill will have on council spending and rates is dawning rapidly among businesses and ratepayers, says Rob McLagan, Chairman of the Local Government Forum.

The Local Government Forum today presented a second instalment of its Stop the Local Government Bill petition to the Local Government and Environment Select Committee, bringing the total number of signatures to 8,438.

"The Local Government Forum is calling for the government to put the Bill to one side and instead undertake an integrated first-principles review of the functions, powers and funding of local authorities, involving representatives from local and central government, business organisations and ratepayer groups," said Mr McLagan.

"Local government has a major influence on economic activity, the profitability of all New Zealand businesses and the community at large. This Bill threatens to extend the powers of local government without imposing effective checks and balances on excessive spending, inappropriate activities, and duplication of services.

"It is probably the most radical constitutional change New Zealand has experienced in at least the last decade. Indeed, the theme of Local Government New Zealand's 2003 Conference says it all - 'Unlimited'.

"The Local Government Forum has written to the Prime Minister seeking a meeting to discuss the Bill. The Minister of Local Government is 'too busy' to see the Forum until the New Year, yet in a recent speech to the Society of Local Government Managers' Annual Conference, the Minister admits telephoning as many mayors and regional council chairpersons as he could reach.

"It is most unfortunate that the Minister did not similarly reach out to those who pay the bills. The lack of contact at this important stage is unacceptable given that the Bill could well be law by the end of the year. The Government's claim that it wants to listen to business viewpoints is not looking credible.

"The previous Minister of Local Government stated on May 2000 that "before the Government could consider giving local authorities the power of general competence, there must be a far greater level of sign-up from those who at the end of the day pay the bills".

"There is clearly no such sign-up. Nor is there a general sign-up among parties generally in Parliament, which there should be on an issue of constitutional importance. This means that at the next change of government there is a high probability that the legislation will be revisited, with disruption and costs to councils and the rate paying community.

"Ratepayers have been largely left out of the local government debate with conferences already scheduled for next year to explain how councils are adapting to new powers of general competence in response to the impending legislation. We also understand that some councils are already beginning to consult on Long Term Council Community Plans, despite such plans having no legal standing until after the Bill is passed.

"The Local Government Forum can only conclude from these developments that the Bill is "a done deal" bringing into question the integrity of the whole Parliamentary process.

"The threat to all businesses and other ratepayers, both urban and rural, is the risk of carrying the costs of meeting ambitious councils' unrealistic and expensive "dreams and schemes". Democratic checks and balances at the local government level are weak and businesses simply don't have the numbers to defend themselves from the ability of councils to tax the few to benefit the many.

"The proposals run counter to the Government's stated objective of promoting faster economic growth. They should be revisited now in the interests of establishing a sound and durable legislative framework for local government that meets the needs of all stakeholders."

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