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Local government reforms ‘simplistic’, says academic

March 20, 2012

Local government reforms ‘simplistic’, says academic

The Better Local Government reforms announced by Prime Minister John Key yesterday are “simplistic”, according to Dr Andy Asquith, a local government and public management specialist from Massey University.

Dr Asquith says the central government is ignoring the key issues that continue to weaken local government.

“The key issues that could redress the weaknesses identified in their paper – continued disconnection between local government and its citizens, and confusion over the roles of mayors and councillors – are completely ignored,” he says.

“Declining voter turnout in local elections is clear evidence of these issues. While the paper does propose nine reforms to the role of mayors post 2013, along the lines of the Auckland model, these are hardly radical and, in effect, do little more than formalise practices found in many local authorities already.”

Dr Asquith is disappointed that debate around the level of rates increases ignores the 96 recommendations for financial best practice made by the 2007 Shand Report into local government rating.

“This report was presented to the last Labour government and now three governments – the Clark government and two successive Key governments – have effectively written off this important piece of research,” he says.

“There is also much political comment and media coverage surrounding the levels of council debt, but given the asset base of our local authorities, the debt they carry is not unusually high.”

Dr Asquith says the government also assumes all local councils directly undertake activity to enhance the social, economic, cultural and environmental wellbeing of their citizens. In fact, he says, that assumption is wrong.

“The Local Government Act 2002 may give local authorities the power to do those things, but in reality they don’t have the resources or the expertise so they partner with a range of appropriate stakeholders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors,” he says.

“And as the only democratically-elected bodies within an area, local authorities have a unique position of legitimacy to undertake these actions on behalf of their citizens.”

Dr Asquith is a senior lecturer at Massey University’s School of Management, and is about to publish a paper titled The Role, Scope and Scale of Local Government in New Zealand: Its Prospective Future in the peer-reviewed Australian Journal of Public Administration.

ENDS

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