“Slow down on the reforms and get out of your silos,” is the clear message to the Government from the rural and provincial councils of New Zealand.
It comes after all 50 R&P councils’ Mayors, Chairs, CEs and some of their councillors met for the first time this year during a two-day forum run by Local Government NZ (LGNZ) in Wellington late last week. The forum heard from politicians from both sides of the House who all acknowledged the current pressures on the sector.
Mayor Alex Walker and Mayor Gary Kircher are the Chairs of LGNZ’s Rural and Provincial Councils. They say on any given day, councils are dealing with roading, parks and reserves and the 30 - 40 other services communities expect their councils to deliver, before adding the reforms to the mix.
“The Three Waters reform and Resource Management reform will completely change the roles and responsibilities of local authorities,” says Mayor Walker.
“Councils are not opposed to change, and we all agree that the status quo is unsustainable, but we can’t have everything happen at once.
“On top of those two reforms, we have a new health system with locality functions being implemented, the significant climate change work including the National Adaptation Plan and Emissions Reduction Plan, a new Waste Minimisation Strategy and the proposed reform of emergency management.
“Most importantly, the Future for Local Government (FfLG) Review is also underway, which is an important piece of work and in an ideal world would have been done before anything else.
“During our forum we heard from the sector and a number of speakers that skilled staff from councils are being poached into Government departments.
“This leaves a massive skills gap right across the local government sector.
“Everyone agrees that we need a strong, cohesive local government that ultimately empowers communities and local decision making. The reforms are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it right; let’s not rush it for the sake of politics,” Mayor Walker said.
“Councils cannot meaningfully contribute to reforms of this scale with those kinds of workforce challenges, particularly during a year when local body elections are taking place and new members are being inducted into their roles – many of whom will have little or no prior knowledge of these reforms,” says Mayor Kircher.
“We are working in a pressure cooker environment, but this pressure will be exacerbated by the need to make meaningful contributions to the Water Services Bill, the Natural & Built Environments Bill and the Spatial Planning Bill, while making sure that the core services are still being delivered to our communities.
“In rural and provincial New Zealand, councils are showing leadership by implementing innovative, community-led initiatives across a spectrum of issues such as employment, health and housing.
“The initiatives show creativity and take into account the unique nature of different rural communities. We must use the reforms as an opportunity to build on these successes.
“We strongly urge the Government to listen to our concerns. We want the Government to work with the sector to better coordinate the timeframes and align all the reforms that impact the sector,” Mayor Kircher said.
LGNZ President, Stuart Crosby added that the challenges we are confronted with have built up over several decades and we shouldn’t look to fix it all in a handful of years.
“This approach will not do the reforms justice. It will not do our communities justice. It certainly will not help the workforce challenges councils are all facing,” he said.
“The challenges for our rural, provincial and metro councils vary in type and scale, but everyone agrees that the pace of change needs to slow down.
“Let’s take a phased approach and find solutions to get more people with skills on the ground – which means growing our own to future-proof our sector and plugging the immediate skills gap.
“It’s about engaging with the people who will have to put the reforms into action, so we can all better serve our mutual communities,” Stuart Crosby said.