Back your own horse call to Government

On 5 September I joined the Auckland Council delegation speaking to the Council’s submission on the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill at the Local Government and Environment Select Committee Hearings

I spoke after the Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse.  There was a short item about the presentation on Checkpoint Council weary of changes to local government act Radio NZ  5 September 2012

Tena Kotou Katoa

My name is Pippa Coom. I am Deputy Chair of the Waitemata Local Board – the Board covering the central city and inner suburbs of Auckland. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee today to speak on behalf of the Board’s submission that forms part of the Auckland Council’s response to the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill.

I wish to speak specifically in relation to the proposed consequential changes to the Local Government (Auckland Council) Act 2009 that fundamentally alters the purpose of Local Boards and the concerns this raises about the impact on local decision making and the role of local boards in contributing to community well-being.

This Act was intended to strengthen local democracy and community engagement based on the recommendations of the Royal Commission. As Nikki Kaye, MP for Central Auckland said at the third reading of the Act – the new structure will deliver “strong local boards so that people can better influence what goes on in their community”.

In my experience it is only now –after almost 2 years – that Aucklanders are coming to grips with the new structure of local government in the region and to appreciate the role of their local board.  Local board members have become the go to people for local issues.  Without a doubt there have been many transitional issues and challenges but local democracy and grass roots engagement have been one of the success stories of the amalgamation. Local boards are strengthening their communities, undertaking place-making, and in other ways supporting or improving the life of their citizens as encompassed by the “four well-beings”. Local boards within the Auckland Council structure are best placed to understand and advocate for the aspirations of their communities.

It therefore seems completely at odds to have supported the Local Government (Auckland Council) Act and set up the structure for strong local boards to now propose to effectively make Local Boards redundant.  What is proposed will make the local boards a local service delivery agency and many current activities could be interpreted to fall outside the proposed new purpose.

I think the best way to illustrate this is with regards to local board plans. Within the last year we have engaged extensively with our communities to develop a local board plan that sets out the aspirations and priorities of the people and businesses in our local areas for the next three years and beyond. As we support the need for local government activities to be undertaken in a cost effective manner we have been fiscally prudent and maintained a balanced budget.  The majority of our projects are low cost but that will have high impact in terms of building strong local communities. There is no doubt that our activities complement and facilitate the role of central government and the private sector.  We are not aware of any evidence to suggest that local boards are acting ineffectively or have diverted into areas more appropriately covered by central government.

However these plans contain a wide range of activities, some of which may sit outside the narrow focus of the new purpose statement for local boards.  To give just one example-  there is strong local support within our area community gardens and fruit tree planting. Through a combination of volunteer labour, donated trees, a small local board contribution and support from the parks team we are holding a community planting day to kick off an orchard in a local park.

The lawyer in me can’t but help but point out that fruit tree planting is not “good quality local infrastructure”; it is not strictly a “public service” and it is not being undertaken in the “performance of a regulatory function”. But it is an activity that will strengthen the community and have lasting benefits.

As a lawyer I could go through our local board plan and argue that on every page there are initiatives that fall outside the proposed new purpose for local boards – all initiatives that will be of no interest to Central government or the private sector but matter to our communities.

We have therefore requested in our submission to you that no change is made to the purpose of local boards before the new structure has been given an opportunity to be fully tested. If Aucklanders don’t agree with the direction of their local boards then the election next year is the appropriate mechanism for change. I ask those in government to back your own horse as you put it in place less than 2 years ago – to fully support local democracy, and local decision making by maintaining the current function and purpose of local boards.