New Local Government Bill a fresh approach to community empowerment

  • Sandra Lee
Local Government

I move, that the Local Government Bill be now read a first time.

It is my intention to move, at the appropriate time, that this bill be referred to the Local Government and Environment Committee for consideration, and that the committee report back to this House by 14 May 2002.

This bill represents the fourth and final component of a comprehensive package of legislative reforms that are intended, collectively, to modernise and enhance our system of local democracy.

Perhaps we see the most unusual debate on the previous legislation that we have seen in the House, as the classic example of why the 700-page tome that is the old Local Government Act was in desperate need of reform.

In fact, through its prescriptive nature it precluded councils from doing things that made common sense.

Rather, it said that unless it was prescribed it simply could not be done.

That is a bizarre approach to legislation in the new century, and it is not one that we support.

The other parts of this comprehensive package that we have introduced and enacted are the Local Electoral Act, the Local Government (Elected Member Remuneration and Trading Enterprises) Amendment Act, and the Local Government (Rating) Bill.

That is a comprehensive sweep of local government legislation, and I want to acknowledge the work of all of the officials from the Department of Internal Affairs, of Richard Marshall, my private secretary, and also of my colleague John Lepper who has assisted me in all of that work.

The over-riding objective of local authorities is to be effective, more responsive, and more accountable to the communities they represent.

The last major reform of local government took place in the late 1980s.

It was essentially a reform of the structure of local government, and very controversial it was too.

That reform process resulted in 700 or so local and special purpose authorities being largely amalgamated into fewer than 90 district and regional councils.

That is not what the 2001 Local Government Bill is about, although the new bill seeks to reform the old legislation significantly.

However, unlike the upheaval that occurred in the late 1980s, this bill is not about further reorganisation. It is not about rationalisation, and it is not about redundancies.

This bill, which is the culmination of the work done on the recent review of the Local Government Act, is nevertheless an extremely important step forward.

It is both a reaffirmation of the place that local government has within our democracy, and of the rights of local people in their communities to exercise controls over their aspirations, their decisions, and the democracy that affects them.

This bill is all about the fact that if these objectives are to be achieved by local government they must have a more effective legislative base than the one that currently exists.

The debate earlier in the House was most amusing, because as people suggest that this has been a problem in the last 12 months, that is only proof positive of the ignorance of the National Party.

In fact, these sorts of issues have been a problem for local government for decades, and in the decade that the National Government had in which to do something about it, that government did nothing at all.

Sip did de doo, diddily squat, and zilch! I would be surprised if many members of this House were not of the opinion that the time has long since past for the current Local Government Act to be referred to the retired paddock.

The current Act is utterly and totally antiquated, and there is no doubt about that. This old Act still has provisions about how one sets the time-piece on the town clock, and whether street vendors are required to wear armbands.

It is highly detailed legislation, that has been amended and re-amended.

Yes, I well remember from the select committee those dreadful omnibus bills that dealt with everything from dog control in the Chatham Islands to major infrastructure issues in Auckland--simultaneously and badly--and that were re-amended many times over the years.

The old Act has, through its strictures and inflexibility, generated the passage of hundreds of local Acts, and it stands as a costly invitation for litigation.

If the National Party is genuinely worried about the compliance costs to the private sector and communities that exist in society today, then they should be cheerleaders for this legislation because it will help alleviate some of those problems.

It is becoming increasingly clear that as time goes on the current Local Government Act is not well suited to meeting the changing needs of our communities as they exist in the 21st century.

Early on in the review the local government process set out the desired outcomes that we want to achieve.

We want the new Act to reflect a coherent position on the role and purpose of local government.

We want to move from a detailed, prescriptive form of law to one that is empowering and flexible.

We want to provide councils with greater flexibility so that we do not have nightly to do the dance of death on yet another local government bill--I know my colleague who is a spokesperson on the other side of this House knows that that is true because he too was on the select committee and I am sure he remembers it well--and to clarify the relationship between councils and the Treaty of Waitangi, which has been an ongoing vexatious issue that has sought certainty both from the local government sector and from the Maori community.

Above all, the bill is about empowering communities, not as some might imagine by the empowerment of councils to exert greater and greater power and authority over their electors, but rather, by the empowerment of New Zealanders within their local communities to exercise even greater control over their elected representatives and councils, and over the environments and communities in which they live.

This is to be achieved by requiring councils to conduct the decision-making process in a democratic and open manner, by requiring greater responsibility from elected members in return for increased legislative flexibility, by providing councils with legal rights to the things that they have a valid community mandate for, and--surely, oh surely, controlling riots in one's local territorial area on New Year's Eve it would be thought would reasonably be one of them, without needing a special Act of Parliament; but no, not yet, but it is on its way--by giving people the information and opportunities they need to influence the decision-making process.

To be successful, councils must in future be driven less by a need for strict compliance with a detailed statute, and more by the need to deliver results that local communities demand.

The bill is in this House today because the Government has been able to develop an effective working relationship with the local government sector.

Government members have not been sitting on our hands--let me assure the members of the Opposition--and the sector has said that it is delighted with the new partnership, and a relationship that is truly meaningful with this Labour-Alliance Government.

Central to what we have been able to do is to work together based on the principle of good faith through a series of review processes, to agree on some things, to agree to disagree on others, but none the less, to recognise the considerable contribution that we have made, and to work through this legislation based on the principle of partnership.

However, there are a few things that clearly do need to be understood about this bill, in particular the idea of empowerment.

This bill is not about legislating at even greater levels of council activity, and it is most certainly not intended to drive levels of council expenditure through the roof. It is about ensuring that the dreams and aspirations of local communities are reflected in the activities of their councils.

There are important provisions in this bill that say ``No'' to the proposition of further privatisation of water in New Zealand society.

We are not going to agree to allow councils to sell what is not a commodity--the access to clean water--but a fundamental human right. Likewise, the alienation of strategic assets by councils, and the uncertainty, fear, and frustration that it causes in communities, will not be able to be achieved by local authorities without first of all going through a defined consultation process with the community.

When the people of Auckland got ``Banksie'', they never knew they were getting ``Mr Birchie'' as well, whose history in New Zealand as a former Minister of Finance is very well recorded.

I can tell the House that the pensioners whose homes I helped build as a local body politician are fearful tonight again because of the policies advocated by Mr Birch that mean ripping pensioners out of their homes when the vast majority of my community overwhelmingly supports the proposition of pensioner housing, community housing, community facilities, and community activities.

The fundamental purpose of this legislation is not just based on a linear view that councils should be engaged in business only at the expense of the community, with no accountability back.

We are saying that councils, in this purpose, should take into account in a democratic way the social, environmental, and economic consequences of the activities they engage in.

We believe that is critical. I will listen very carefully and with an open mind to all the submissions made to the select committee.

There is a tremendous amount of work here. I commend the bill to the House.