Eugenie Sage List M.P. (Green) in speech to the Local Government Conference comments on proposed changes to RMA and CERA/ heritage.
“Partnership needed with local government, not command and control relationship"
Speech to Local Government NZ Conference, July 2013
Local Government New Zealand Annual Conference
Claudelands Event Centre Hamilton, Tuesday 23 July 2013
Eugenie Sage, Green MP and local government spokesperson
Political Panel - "Councils' role in our democracy - elected mandate or government agent?"
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa
Thank you very much for the invitation to be here today and to offer a few comments on councils' role in our democracy. The subject is timely because I believe, we are seeing a profound change in the relationship between central and local government which affects councils' role. These changes are potentially as significant as those implemented in the Local Government Act 2002 but to date they are being done to councils , rather than at councils' or communities' request , and in my view are eroding local democracy.
We are moving from what the Green Party believes should be a strong relationship of partnership, between central and local government, to one which is characterised by a command and control ethos, where central government is much more directive, councils are seen as agents; and under a previous Minister fair game for being attacked in the media.
Local government is separate from, and different to central government - elections are held separately and we pay taxes in the form of rates separately.
Parliament is sovereign in terms of law making. But over a very long time Parliament has recognised and affirmed that power should not be concentrated, but allocated to various bodies, with varying degrees of independence from the Executive.
Local authorities are constitutionally important as a check and balance on the power of central government and the Executive. They have their own elected mandate and are an important part of the rule of law.
Local Government NZ's unanimous resolution at its AGM that local government's role should be explicitly recognised in New Zealand's constitution is a welcome move.
With all due respect to the Prime Minister and Minister Tremain, under this National Government we have seen many instances of Ministers increasing their powers at the expense of councils.
By its actions, the Government does not appear to listen to, trust or respect local government and local democracy.
Last year, despite LGNZ's unanimous resolution to retain the four wellbeings as the purpose of local government, and substantive submissions from councils and many community organisations around New Zealand about why the changes were counter productive, the legislation amending the Local Government Act went through - pretty much unaltered. The wellbeings were deleted.
In the same legislation the Executive increased its power over local government with the greater powers of Ministerial intervention to oversee or take over Council decision making through a Crown Observer, Crown Review Team, Crown Manager, and Commissioners.
We have seen these powers exercised recently in Christchurch with the appointment of a Crown Manager whose powers are greater than those of a CEO and include being able to direct councillors. It's notable that his term extends until the end of 2014 even though the issues with building consent processes should surely be able to be resolved much sooner.
In other legislation last year Government extended the term of its Environment Canterbury Commissioners until at least 2016 and cancelled elections. In October, Cantabrians will be unable to vote for regional councillors to represent them despite contributing more than $80 million in rates to council each year.
Councils are elected to represent the wisdom of their communities. Yet the Government's changes to the Resource Management Act mean councils are less likely to be the decision makers on important infrastructure projects and on the policy framework for resource management - city, district and regional plans.
The RMA changes are narrowing the scope of council's decision making . The Resource Management Reform Bill 2012 which will be debated in Parliament next week, extends the Minister's regulation making powers. The Minister for the Environment will be able to call in "medium sized projects " (yet be defined by regulation), not just projects of national significance . That means more decisions are likely to made by Boards of Inquiry appointed by the Minister, rather than by councils or hearing panels which councils appoint. In another change, councils will no longer be able to decline an applicant's request for direct referral to the Environment Court, again taking decision making away from being local where the community can readily participate.
The 2012 Bill also provides for the Environment and Conservation Ministers rather than Auckland Council to appoint the Hearings Panel for Auckland 's Combined Plan and to set the panel's terms of reference. This is despite it being Auckland's Plan and Aucklanders paying for the plan development (including the re-imbursement of panel members).
The departmental report says Ministers should appoint the Hearings Panel to ensure that the Panel is "fully independent from the Council" so that the "panel's recommendations will not be biased towards the Council." Yet somehow it is not a problem when Ministers appoint the panel, if a panel's recommendations "are biased towards" those that Ministers and Government will favour.
The proposals in the third RMA Bill to be introduced in August will further centralise power in the Beehive and weaken the ability of councils to make decisions on behalf of their communities.
A similar model of requiring plan hearing panels to have a majority of external commissioners rather than elected councillors may be rolled out in the third RMA amendment bill. Yet to whom are such commissioners accountable to? Surely a core part of governance is making policy through hearing and deciding on community decisions on proposed resource management plans; based on the mandate councillors have from voters.
Environment Minister Amy Adams is also threatening to remove council's powers to respond to community concerns about genetic engineering and liability issues in the event of GE contamination by stripping councils of their power to have any plan provisions about GE.
RMA Bill No 3 will also allow much more intervention by Ministers in plan making. The Minister for Environment will be able to direct councils to amend or change operative plans.
The Act already has mechanisms for the Minister to provide central government guidance on how the RMA should be implemented through national policy statements and national environment standards. These promote consistent environmental policy around New Zealand, though they have been little used by MFE and its Minister. The RMA changes will allow the Minister to swoop in at any stage and direct changes to plans, which may be completely at odds with the thrust of community opinion. This risks ad hoc intervention in particular regions or districts favouring particular industries or activities.
The Minister's discussion document on "Reforming our resource management system" talked about planning templates. There was some support for the concept but there was no mention then of it being mandatory for councils to use these templates. I understand that this may also be part of the Bill.
And then there is the Housing Accords legislation which National introduced this year. It gives the Minister of Housing significant powers to open up land for subdivision and designate special housing areas regardless of whether this is consistent with urban limits. There is no obligation to consult or work collaboratively with the relevant council. Agreement reached with Auckland Council but the Bill doesn't require consultation or collaboration.
And in Land Transport Management Amendment Act 2013 which removed the right of regional councils to determine the strategic direction for transport in their regions by requiring this to be consistent with Government Policy Statement on Transport Funding written by the Minister with its bias towards RONS , rather than increasing investment in public and active transport.
The most obvious example of Government not recognising council's elected mandate and regarding it as agent, is of course in Christchurch where the sweeping powers of the Minister and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority or CERA have continued long after the emergency period.
CERA's power and influence has disempowered City Council, undermined its sense of purpose and been extremely corrosive of democracy, frustrating a community led recovery. It is CERA who decides that heritage buildings can be demolished without any public submission process. We have CERA not the City Council controlling redevelopment of the heart of the city - Cathedral Square, deciding what happens to the Avon River precinct with Council watching from sidelines. We have CERA imposing grandiose projects such as super sized convention centre and a 35,000 seat covered stadium which will see council debt balloon instead of the Council's more affordable proposals.
The cumulative effect of all these changes and others is to encroach on and constrain councils' decision making role.
The Green Party believes that local government matters, it is the embodiment of local democracy and democracy is at the heart of every economic, environmental and social debate we face as a nation.
Local government plays a crucial role in shaping places and communities that come together to form a great New Zealand. There are councils, local boards and community boards all over the country who are doing great work and providing essential infrastructure and services from libraries to the three waters.
The promotion of the four wellbeings should be at the heart of all government activity including that of local government. We believe in the principle of no taxation without representation. Citizens should be able to decide what happens in their communities with an eye to what's happening in the rest of the region and nationally.
We need an engaged democracy to achieve a fair society, to protect the natural world that we love and to transition to a smart green economy.
If people are to engage with local government then central government needs to recognise the value of partnership and not just, whenever it likes, cut across councils and undermine local democracy.
Instead of threatening councils with Ministerial intervention and further centralisation of decision making we need more support for localism. National policies and national environmental standards can provide better policy guidance, promote national consistency and help reduce plan preparation costs while keeping decision making local.
We need more strategic planning at regional level which involves central government agencies, councils and the community. And we need a proper review of options for revenue sharing and alternative funding sources to rates, Councils such as Auckland need access to alternatives such as a regional fuel tax and congestion charges to help fund public transport.
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