Local Government Amendment Bill pushing another political agenda

A Bill called the Local Government Amendment Bill No.2 has just been reported back from a select committee to Parliament. This Bill is of significance because it proposes to make it easier for local authorities to reorganise themselves by attacking each other and taking over services that the other provides.

Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of local government structure as it now appears. We have territorial councils that run a city or town and we have regional councils that govern entire regions and have regional responsibilities assigned to them. Before 1989 the regional councils did not exist, but there were a range of regional governance arrangements in place; for example there was Auckland Regional Authority, and closer to home there was Canterbury United Council. When local government was majorly reorganised nationwide the regionalisation arrangements became the norm across all areas, so that ARA became Auckland Regional Council, whilst CUC was essentially superseded by the Canterbury Regional Council. Many territorial councils were amalgamated together into larger bodies. This was done in a very piecemeal way rather than following common sense in a lot of cases, and this resulted in some unitary councils in places like Gisborne and Nelson-Malrborough for no good reason, and in some areas very small territorial councils like South Wairarapa District Council (total population 10,000), Kaikoura District Council (total population 3830), and three councils for the West Coast with an average around 10,000 in each of their districts.

So other words what is the point of having such small territorial councils and the reason is purely political. And what is the point of having unitary authorities and again it is political. When we see that there are clear benefits in the way regional councils and territorial councils are organised with clear responsibilities then the fact there are unitary authorities in some areas means that the regional and territorial functions are combined which creates a clear conflict of interest. This results in the regional function being minimised in most cases in those areas. To be able to look at the issue in this way we have to be able to understand that territorial forms of government are relatively weak and therefore prone to corruption and self interest. This weakness both comes from and contributes to a low standard of candidates for territorial council offices. Local governance is weak and corrupt because the wards that elect councillors are small and are therefore dominated by very local issues. The most local interest that any voter can have revolves around the house they live in. From there things scale up into their neighbourhood and its character. For political blocs to take control of a council they have to campaign across all the wards regardless of their character and therefore in most cases have to campaign on populist parochial platforms that will make the areas they represent more desirable, which usually involves spending lots of ratepayers’ funds. These platforms are in turn captured by interest groups that have the most time and money to spend on lobbying, generally the more prosperous areas in a city or town.

Both major political blocs recognise there are objectives that they can achieve through local government. National generally favours keeping councils locally focused taking as many responsibilities from them as possible or placing them under heavy government regulation. Examples: changing the Resource Management Act multiple times to push through development without public consultation,; mandating interference from NZTA in public transport tendering; forcing councils to sell their shareholdings in electricity retailing and public transport operations; mandating council corporatisation of commercial holdings, etc. National also supports councils becoming unitary so that a layer of bureaucracy is eliminated. Labour on the other hand supports councils that are involved in more things with more deveolved powers from central government, less regulation, more public consultation powers, more assets owned by central government etc. The problem is that both of these differing objectives fail to make local government more equitable. The populist character of local government campaigning and representation is not being addressed. This means that less populist causes such as core council functions and better services in areas such as water and public transport are not well served by local government.

National brought this Bill together to provide for new CCOs that would be owned by multiple Councils and organise infrastructure and services such as water and transport services into such organisations. Reorganisations would have to be under the supervision of an increased Local Government Commission with more members and powers than before. Labour has gutted key sections of the Bill, most notably the additional powers and duties assigned to the Local Government Commission and the sections changing the functions of CCOs. probably because the National Party model of a CCO would look more like the ones in Auckland, which follow a more corporate model of organisation that has less direct accountability to elected governance. Since the effect of National’s proposals was to regionalise local government more and the Labour proposals are to territorialise it more, the outcomes of changing this will be more negative for functions that are currently regionalised in local governance. This has come about because the Labour mayors of large cities which do not control functions such as public transport have been lobbying for decades to take over control of these functions regardless of the merit of any such proposals, which in most cases is non existent.

The problem with this Bill that Labour is pushing through (to serve their own political interests) is that the local government weakness is going to become more empowered by this law. A territorial council can instigate a reorganisation proposal out of naked self interest, usually from a political bloc who will claim they can do something better than another group of politicians. An example in Christchurch is the campaign by CCC to take over running local bus services from Ecan. There is no substantive basis for this claim except for naked self interest and political greed from CCC politicians, namely the Labour-Peoples Choice bloc. The much wider agenda is making it easier for territorial councils to seize power from their regional counterparts in every area possible. This means that CCC could also campaign to take over the responsibility for air quality, another area where they have proven particularly ineffective in the past to regulate due to a well funded vocal lobby of heating appliance and car owners who believe they have a right to pollute. Another example could be water quality. CCC is currently one of the biggest freshwater polluters in the city due to overflows from the wastewater system that it steadfastly refuses to fund the upgrade of. The reasons for pushing these measures through are not to improve services to ratepayers, but to advantage political blocs like Labour.

Once the Bill is passed we can expect to see the political blocs in various cities exploiting the very weak reorganisational mechanisms to push through various takeovers and the Government will stand by and do nothing as it is a political advantage to them to have territorial authorities that have more fingers in pies than ever. In public transport, because the existing provision of PT functions by CCC is already very weak, an improvement is unlikely.

What is the best administrative structure for public transport?

In New Zealand, since 1989, public transport around the country is governed by regional councils, whilst territorial councils are responsible for funding road-based infrastructure for PT that uses roads, such as buses. Where rail is a form of PT, the local infrastructure, however, is generally under the ownership of the regional council, the rail line and corridor being owned by the Government. Unitary authorities work in a similar way to a territorial council that has taken over regional functions. Auckland is in a unique position of being a unitary authority with all of its transport and roading functions placed under the control of a CCO, a company owned by Auckland Council which it only has governance oversight of, not direct operational control. This essentially means the board of Auckland Transport is not elected directly by ratepayers and therefore not accountable to them.

There is no perfect system for administering public transport because the sticking point is the source of funding for local infrastructure. Ratepayers in local government areas are very reluctant to see their rates being spent on public transport infrastructure, or road space being prioritised for public transport ahead of cars. So in Christchurch, bus priority takes forever to implement, and bus shelters and interchanges tend to be scarce. Residents opposing the operation of a bus down their street is also an ongoing issue.

Rail has a relatively easy ride compared to road transport because the rail network is a central government asset, and they are not directly accountable to local ratepayers. The operation of trains has to be contracted out, but the regional council governs the service just as they do with bus services. The crucial difference is that local ratepayers cannot hobble the operation of the train services. Train services are also different in that local infrastructure such as stations is owned by the regional council rather than by a territorial council.

Public transport therefore works best when it is governed by a non-territorial authority. This is precisely the reason for the system we have now. The problem is that as a long as roads are under the control of a territorial council, which is guaranteed to kowtow to the owners of private motor vehicles, public transport will always remain second priority and second rate because the money will never be found from rates to fund the infrastructure that is needed to improve the services.

The solution for road based public transport is probably to keep the governance of the services themselves at regional council level as is the case now. The second step that is needed is for central Government to fund public transport infrastructure directly, through either the regional or territorial council, preferably the former. Therefore for example, giving the regional councils the powers necessary to designate and manage a public transport network and the necessary infrastructure, is probably the improvement necessary to ensure that road based PT systems operate much better than is possible now. This essentially would mean giving the regional councils the power to override local councils in the matter of bus routes and corridors, and the funding to build the supporting infrastructure themselves. At that point, the operation of a road-based public transport system is similar to that of a rail network.

There are those who argue that the answer is to give full governance control to the territorial authority. This will result in the services being subsumed to the all-dominant motor vehicle interests. In short it is not going to improve on the current system as funding will still be at the whim of ratepayers.

“Planning For Successful Cities”: NPS on urban development out for consultation [1]: Background

Earlier this week the Government (HUDA and MFE) released a discussion document on its proposed National Policy Statement on urban development. Consultation is now being undertaken in relation to the issues raised in the document, until 10 October 2019 at 5 pm.

The key issue raised in the DD is that significant problems exist in current urban planning and growth that are producing negative outcomes such as severe housing unaffordability, falling home ownership, increased hardship and homelessness, increased household debt, intergenerational inequality, congestion, poor transport choice and urban pollution. The Government therefore proposes its Urban Growth Agenda to provide the improvements needed to address issues such as these. It suggests some important issues that it aims to address are reducing car dependency, fixing the present broken system for funding and financing infrastructure, and ensuring central government works more closely with local government, the private sector and communities.

The following is a summary of the chapters in the DD and my responses to it. These responses will form the basis of my submission that I intend to produce for this proposal. Christchurch is one of the key growth areas identified in the government’s press release and public transport forms a key part of the solutions needed in the city. At the same time there is existing and substantial concern that the last government’s pro-developer agenda expressed through the combined impacts of the replacement District Plan and the Resource Management Act amendments pushed through in 2009 have gone too far in their impact on neighbourhoods.

As we already know, recent governments have attempted to fund ways to promote increased housing development in the major centres to increase the housing supply but this has produced quite a mixed bag of results with concerns particularly identified over National’s policy shift promoted as “reducing red tape” that has given developers greatly increased rights to develop without considering the impact on the environment such as through increased vehicle traffic in existing streets, removing trees, lack of carparking on site, etc. There have been numerous higher density housing developments recently in Christchurch that have created these concerns, but a much bigger one currently occurring in Merivale is the expansion of a local shopping mall which is likely to end up in court because the impacts are far from being “less than minor”.

The newspaper reporting on this NPS release has suggested this is “a government plan to sideline nimbys” and this could be a problem if it is an accurate statement. I am certainly hoping this proposal is a reasonably balanced one. Whilst it is undeniable that intensification of housing is always going to create challenges for some residents, the worst cases in Christchurch to date have resulted from the District Plan requirements being regularly flouted and concerns over streets becoming clogged with traffic and parked vehicles. Since the release refers to “high quality streets, neighbourhoods and communities” I certainly hope this is adequately addressed. Another issue that is important to be addressed is social housing development. Housing New Zealand is a key concern with their post-earthquake trend of pushing through many new complexes in parts of the City and changes in their tenant case management since the change of government, but CCC’s SH developments are also capable of creating similar challenges.

This NPS is expected to replace National’s NPS-UDC from 2016, by broadening its focus and adding significant new content. The key relevance for Christchurch is the existing Urban Development Strategy which has in turn resulted in some key initiatives taken by the preceding National government. The key ones which were relevant are:

  • Changes in the District Plan to produce increased intensification in various areas of the city.
  • Developing the Southern Motorway to enable faster road transport to/from Selwyn District.
  • Developing the Christchurch Northern Corridor motorway to speed up road transport to/from Waimakariri District.

These have all raised their own issues. Intensification has already been mentioned above. The key issues with the motorway developments have varying impacts. The Southern motorway project has been largely focused in recent years on bringing the existing SH76 through to join SH1 at Weedons, creating a bypass of the main urban areas of the south-west of Christchurch, so that freight and passenger vehicles can reach the city more quickly and conveniently from Selwyn District. SH76 joins onto Brougham Street, the main arterial route for freight to and from Port of Lyttelton. As this area has been intensively developed along these lines for decades, there has not been too much of an issue with the motorway expansion, which on SH76 itself has seen widening to four lanes completed just after the earthquakes, west of Barrington. However, the last National Government put forward an election campaign proposal to four lane SH1 from Rolleston to Ashburton which was dropped by the incoming Labour administration and has raised some local controversy. West of the city, SH1 which has run on that route for many years via Russley Road and Johns Road, was widened to four lanes and a bypass was built to go around Belfast at the northern end, the roundabout at the Memorial Avenue intersection was replaced by an overbridge and on/off ramps, the bridge with its large arches being a prominent landmark in the area. The Christchurch Northern Corridor, currently nearing completion has been the most controversial proposal. Although it runs mostly through greenfield land and the designations have been in place for decades, it will funnel a large volume of traffic into the existing roading network through Cranford Street and St Albans Residents Association has been highly active in campaigning against it and this is ongoing at the time of writing.

A key part of the counter proposals to address the impact of the CNC has been the proposals to develop a rail passenger service between the City and Rangiora and this has been well addressed by this blog and the campaign will continue. I will share some thoughts about the upcoming elections and the possible impacts in my next post. The NPS discussion will continue in part [2] of this series/

 

 

Protests needed against NZTA/Government buck passing on public transport funding

The Labour government came to office promising improvements in public transport funding which have so far amounted to very little. All that seems to keep happening in this sector (or for that matter in many sectors) is the government announces another time wasting review. All they have to do is ask people in the sector what is needed instead of more reviews and delays.

In Canterbury we have a new regional land transport plan developed by Ecan in partnership with CCC, Selwyn District and Waimakariri District, but no means of implementing it without additional government funding. Consequently Ecan is limited to doing reviews to try and squeeze more efficiency out of the current level of funding, so there have been a few services cut and changed but no new ones introduced as proposed in the plan. A look around the country shows that things aren’t different anywhere else except in Queenstown where the local council has stumped up additional funding for their improved bus service, or in Hamilton where a hugely expensive train service is being planned. In Wellington where they are trying to fix up the mess of the new services they introduced there, the governnment is refusing to help, but without repealing the PTOM or increasing funding there is a limit to what can be achieved there, too.

It is simply not credible for the government to have left public transport funding improvements in abeyance for so long with no relief in sight and it becomes necessary therefore to consider protest action from across a range of different organisations with the objective of getting the government to stop passing the buck, especially in Canterbury where we have a much lower level of government funding for public transport than in Auckland and Wellington.

Another time wasting Government review announced

We’re still waiting for the repeal of National’s cuts to public transport funding through the PTOM and farebox recovery target. Without those improvements there is no more money available to improve public transport in Canterbury.

We’re also waiting for the repeal of legislation in the resource management area like National’s Resource Management (Simplifying and Streamlining) Act 2009 which essentially made most consents non notified, thus removing the requirement for public consultation. In Christchurch this was followed up by a new District Plan which has been highly controversial for allowing housing developments such as intensification in certain areas of the city.

But the Government has only made limited changes so far to the Resource Management Act and has just announced a complete review of the legislation. Whilst this review takes place there is no change happening.

One is left with the impression that this government is overly focused on political correctness and its own web of red tape stymying just about everything. As you can see, when Nick Smith passed through that piece of legislation, it was the year after his government was elected. They didn’t waste time getting their changes implemented.

Here we are faced with not only another time wasting review of the RMA, we also have the situation that a new Housing and Urban Development Authority is being established which itself will take time to set up. Another waste of resources. It seems the focus of Labour is to spend oodles of time and resources trying to reinvent everything under the sun. This is a complete waste of time and taxpayers money. Labour needs to get some perspective. They only get three years in office between elections. Whilst some policies have been implemented, everything slowed down a whole lot after the first 100 days in office. It has just seemed that was a publicity stunt. Labour may not actually be able to stay in office long enough to get anything completed.

We don’t believe we will see any improvements to public transport funding and management before the 2020 election. This means the creaking inadequate public transport system in Christchurch (and in other centres) will not be able to be improved in a reasonable timeframe.