Local Government Review chair, Jim Palmer

Twelve weeks out from the election and the Local Government Review has presented the Government with a political nightmare.

Just when Chris Hipkins might have thought he had got the Three Waters monkey off his back, the Review has brought back a whole list of political hot potatoes likely to rouse the provinces in opposition.

It unveiled its report last night.

The chapter on embracing Te Tiriti and Te Ao Maori is inflammatory enough on its own.

But then there is a proposal to lower the voting age to 16, to entrench providing for wellbeing as a role and function of local Government, and potentially most controversial of all, restructuring local government boundaries so that they align with the 15 Regional Planning Committees proposed under the Natural and Built Environments Bill.

In other words, local body amalgamation.

However there are ideas that are likely to get a better reception.

The Review proposes that the Government pay rates on land it owns.

A remit arguing exactly that was unanimously passed at the recent Central North Island conference of the National Party.

And a proposal that GST paid on rates be rebated by the Government back to Councils echoes a recommendation from the 2018 Productivity Commission’s report on local government funding, which said that there was a case for recycling revenue collected centrally to cover costs incurred locally.

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“As we see it, a key issue is the relationship between central government and local government, a situation that has evolved over the last couple of decades,’ the Review’s chair Jim Palmer said yesterday.

“We’ve spent the last two years listening to local councils, central Government, iwi leaders, community and business representatives, rural communities, minority and interest groups and the public to identify what they want, need, and expect from their local government system.

“Our findings are based on what we have heard and seen.

“Based on this, we conclude that the current system is not fit for the future.

“In our view, local communities are not well-served by the relationship between local and central Government, and a reset in this relationship is required.

“Our communities must be empowered to build local solutions with support and funding from central government.”

But the Review’s endorsement of localism goes only so far.

In what is bound to be one of its most controversial recommendations, it says the country’s 78 regional and district councils should combine to become 15 unitary authorities.

Their boundaries would align with the 15 regional boundaries proposed for the Natural and Built Environments Bill regional planning committees.

“We are suggesting that local government, in the first instance, should lead the process to decide what is best for it,” said Palmer.

“We suggest that the proposed 15 RMA regional boundaries would be a starting point for discussions with councils within each region, engaging with their communities and hapu and Iwi and then recommending what they think is most appropriate.”

Palmer said the new authorities could be agreed on within two years, “then we’d expect a couple of years of implementation that might need to follow decisions.”

If people don’t want that, then he proposes “combined network” models where councils would amalgamate only some of their activities but remain as a local voice.

Hovering over all this would be a new Government department tasked with overseeing local Government.

Currently, that is a function carried out by the Department of Internal Affairs.

The Review was concerned that voter turnout had decreased over the past few decades and engagement didn’t meet the needs of increasingly diverse communities.

“Older, Pākehā people remain over-represented in elected members’ demographics,” the rep[ort said.

“Broad citizen participation in local government decision-making is critical, and the use of citizens’ assemblies and deliberative and participatory democracy is vital as councils embrace their role as enablers of democracy.”

And to address the predominance of elderly Pakeha in local government, the Review proposed that tikanga be incorporated into council operating and engagement practices, and te ao Māori values underpinned council decision-making concepts.

The Review team also said Mātauranga Māori should sit alongside Western science to inform how councils carried out their roles and functions and that te reo Māori should be used within councils and championed in communities.

The Review said the Government should introduce a statutory requirement for councils to develop partnership frameworks with hapū/iwi and Māori to give effect to new Te Tiriti provisions in the Local Government Act 2002 that created new governance arrangements and complement existing ones.

That would include lowering the threshold for the establishment of Māori wards and enabling Te Tiriti-based appointments to councils.

In other major recommendations, they proposed adopting STV as a nationwide method for local elections and lowering the voting age for local elections to 16.

In what may prove to be one of the more wildly optimistic political statements this year, Palmer said that as change would inevitably take some years, the Review team thought it essential there was bipartisan support across Parliament for the proposals.

And he said that if only some of the Review’s recommendations were taken up, the result would not result in the sustainable change the country needed.

“We think the changes contained within our recommendations are significant and implemented, will create a local government system that is fit for the future,” he said.

“We cannot stress strongly enough the need for local government to lean into work required to put these recommendations into action and to be strong advocates for the change and reset that’s required.”

Because of confusion over the report’s release timing, there was no reaction to it last night from eitehr National or Labour.