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When push comes to shove

Let’s be honest; many of us are suspicious of change because of personal circumstances. When you are reasonably comfortable with your lot, it’s easy to think ‘why bother’. However, change can revitalise – creating new thinking and getting us out of ruts that are easy to fall into.

The Future For Local Government final report released a couple of weeks back falls firmly into this category.

Local government needs a shake-up – anybody involved in the sector knows that. The time is ripe for the type of sweeping and dramatic changes the report proposes. But those changes will only become reality if central government is prepared to play its part. For too long central government has treated local government with contempt. Reforms have been passed down with the expectation that local government will implement them and foot most of the bill as well. A good trick if you can get away with it!

The foreword to the Future for Local Government final report stresses the need for strong leadership, authentic relationships, and new ways of thinking, behaving, and operating at all levels of government.

“The current local government system is not set up for future success. Decisions by successive governments have marginalised local government and left it in a precarious position in terms of focus., resourcing and viability. We don’t see either the mature relationship or the mechanisms and systems necessary to deal with these challenges between central and local government.”

The report correctly notes that their proposed reform process requires a major shift from central government, with agencies and ministers having to adapt to how they operate with and relate to local government and enable change through a greater commitment and resourcing.

With councils completing their annual plans, most of the headlines have been centring around rates, and how much extra ratepayers will need to fork out in the 12 months ahead.

Now is the time for council to hear that help is on the way to change the current local government funding and finance system to make them more sustainable. As the final report states, while taxation as a percentage of GDP had risen over time, local government’s share had stayed at around 2 per cent of GDP – even though it had increasing responsibility for delivering the public good.

So, while the report still considers rates as the main funding mechanism for councils along with new tools to raise revenue locally, it makes the salient point that this must be accompanied by significant central government funding to support local outcomes – specifically wellbeing. Hear, hear!

It also says central government should pay rates on its properties and that there should be an annual transfer of revenue to local government equivalent to the annual GST charged on rates, which currently amounts to about $1 billion annually. This too will allow councils the chance to build their capability and capacity and deliver more for their communities.

From a Wairarapa perspective, the most interesting chapter in the report involved the future reorganisation of councils, with the choice of two means proposed: a unitary or combined network model.

Merging Masterton, Carterton and South Wairarapa councils was recently on the table, but so far plans have come to nothing. When push has come to shove, we have not been able to get things over the line. This has seen many of those who believe in a merger go quiet.

This now re-energises the conversation as the final report talks very firmly about councils not only having to tread the reorganisation path but giving them a timeline of five to six years to doing so.

If central government consign the Future for Local Government final report to the scrap heap then the chances are they will take local government down with it. The ball is in their court, pure and simple.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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