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Frontpage News - May 2020

Greetings from LGNZ

The COVID-19 crisis and ensuring lockdown has an created an unprecedented level of uncertainty over the last two months, and it seems that everywhere you look, change is afoot.

However, some aspects of life have continued to deliver certainty and security to millions around the country living under lockdown.  The first things that come to mind may include Netflix, pyjamas, supermarket visits, sourdough bread and Dr Ashley Bloomfield, but there are other staples of life that while generate less discussion, are equally or even more important.

The essential lifeline services provided the local government sector are high on this list, and include clean drinking water delivered to our houses, the removal of our waste water, sewerage and rubbish, and the maintenance of our footpaths, roads and parks.

In the immediate lead up to the lockdown, councils around the country quickly pivoted to ensure the security of these services under lockdown conditions.

Beyond this, councils have worked hard to support their communities, and we've seen great examples of community spirit across the country, including those highlighted below.

Councils are well aware of the financial hardship that our communities are under - a new report shows that beyond the rates impact, the 40% of income on average that councils receive from investments, dividends, fees and other charges is taking a massive hit.

That's why councils are looking closely at their budgets, and are running the rule over the expenditure, in an effort to provide relief now, as well as being able to assist in the economic comeback. 

It's not going to be easy, but if we stand together in the way we have done so far, we'll be in the best possible position to recover as a nation.

Ngā mihi,

The LGNZ Team

When the going gets tough, councils gets going

We’re now into week two of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, and as you will have observed, street lights are still turning on at night, water is still coming out of the taps, toilets are still flushing, rubbish is being collected, buses are running for essential workers and burials and cremations are still taking place.

This is no small undertaking, and it’s made possible by councils around the country, who stripped down to skeleton staff, are getting on with providing the essential, lifeline services that mean millions of New Zealanders can comfortably live under lockdown.

When we say ‘lifeline’ services, they’re exactly that – services that are essential to the health of every household in New Zealand.

Not only that, but where issues are arising, as they do, fixes are being made.  Pipes and sewer filters clogged with wet-wipes are causing no end of issues, but are being unblocked and the Local Government Covid-19 Response Unit has successfully lobbied to have legislation passed that allows councils to meet, like everyone else, through Zoom or Skype.

Civil Defence and Emergency Management Groups, which consist of regional local authority partnerships, are being stood up across the country to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable people are being met and that we are protecting those most at risk from infection.

We’re also working hard behind the scenes to ensure we’re tightening our belts where we can to keep rates low as the economy goes through a sharp contraction, while also ensuring we’re in the best position to aid the economic recovery efforts when we come out of lockdown.

As the respective the presidents of the NZ Society of local Government Managers (SOLGM), and Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), we’re extremely pleased with the way the entire local government family have pulled together in this crisis to support our communities.  Our essential staff on the ground have really hung tough over the last two weeks, as the services they operate face increased use.

A big part of that effort is down to the unity that the wider local government family has shown.  The Local Government Covid-19 Response Unit has worked to share knowledge and resources between councils, so that no community is left behind. 

We have to be honest however – there will be teething issues.  Some rubbish collections might be late, and recycling in many places will have to wait until the lockdown for collection.  Pipes will get blocked, roads will need patching and light fuses will blow.  But councils are rising to the challenge of finding solutions to these issues, that meeting community expectations.

A nod also has to be given to the central government response.  The Department of Internal Affairs has ably led and hosted the Response Unit, and has lent their considerable resource to SOLGM and LGNZ, to assist all councils. We’re also grateful to the National Emergency Management Agency’s role in the response unit, which links our action into the wider national response efforts.

So when you fill the jug or flush the toilet each morning, or when your rubbish gets picked up each week, it means that somewhere a range of local government workers are out there getting it done, and we’re committed to be there when you need us, crisis or no crisis.

Dave Cull is the President of Local Government New Zealand and former Mayor of Dunedin

Phil Wilson is the President of the NZ Society of Local Government Managers

New CouncilMARK™ report highlights council’s commitment to transparency

A new CouncilMARK™ report released today takes a deep dive into Whanganui District Council’s operations, finding an organisation with a clear strategy and sound service delivery, who are on a pathway to further improvement.

CouncilMARK™ is an independent assessment programme that assesses how councils are performing and is designed to support individual councils to improve the service and value they provide.  Councils receive an overall performance rating from the Independent Assessment Board, from C to AAA, as well as commentary on their performance.

Whanganui District Council are the 30th council to voluntarily undergo an assessment, receiving an overall rating of BB across the four priority areas of governance and leadership, financial decision making and transparency, service delivery and asset management and communicating and engaging with the public.

Beyond the final rating and comment, LGNZ President Dave Cull praises the council for going under the board’s microscope and committing to a long-term programme of independent assessment, noting that it will serve both the community and the council well in the coming years.

“Undergoing a CouncilMARK™ assessment is no mean feat and it brings considerable scrutiny on council operations, so we commend Whanganui for putting their hand up and volunteering for this assessment.  It’s a signal to the ratepayers that as a council they won’t shirk away from transparency,” says LGNZ President Dave Cull.

Service delivery and asset management was found to be a standout area, with the report finding that core systems are operating well, and that a risk-based approach to roading development and other key assets has been delivering exemplary results.

“The council has invested wisely in core assets such as drinking and waste water infrastructure, as well as roading.  The challenge for the council is to now use their targeted monitoring and predictive modelling across other areas, to get similar improvements.”

“While the council’s overarching Leading Edge strategy is well thought out and contains both specific actions and measurements to guide progress, the report challenges the council to better align other strategies within it, so that it’s easier for the public to engage with, and more efficient for the staff to follow.”

“The report finds that while the elected member group is relatively new, they’re led by an experienced chief executive and mayor and with more time, professional development and focused committees, they have an opportunity to become a thoroughly cohesive unit,” concluded Cull. 

View Whanganui District Council’s report here and all other reports here.

Strong local response to COVID-19 displays community spirit

LGNZ President Dave Cull is praising the swift reaction of local communities and councils to the COVID-19 epidemic, citing rapid, high-trust decision-making from elected members and council staff to ensure essential services are secured, and that our most vulnerable people are supported.

“The way councils and many communities have pulled together in response to this epidemic has been extremely heartening, it really does show the power of agile, high-trust decision-making at a local level.”

“Our primary focus has been ensuring that we, as local government, continue to provide those lifeline services that the public rely on in their day-to-day lives, and especially in a crisis. We want to reassure New Zealanders that we are here for them when they need us most, and we’re working collaboratively to ensure that no community is left behind.”

“We have also been working in lock-step with Government agencies and communities on a huge range of emerging issues, from facility closures, to putting more rigorous cleaning processes in place, and what they expect as far as communication, particularly on social media.”

“It is particularly gratifying to see how New Zealanders are pulling together in a time of crisis. There is a lot of uncertainty, and elected members, as the representatives of their communities, have been great at sharing information, raising community issues and finding local solutions.”

“Obviously there will be major social, health and economic effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, but our essential staff and elected members are working hard behind the scenes to keep a range of services running to meet the expectations of the community.”

“Over the next four weeks local community reps will continue to offer support, service and korero, particularly through their online channels, and I thank them for this. Equally, please give them your support, as they’ve got a considerable amount on their shoulders.”

The Local and Central Government COVID-19 response team, led by the Department of Internal Affairs and including the Society of Local Government Managers (SOLGM), NEMA and LGNZ are also addressing specific topics that councils are grappling with, whether governance, finance and recovery, social wellbeing or council project management and coordination.

“The Response Unit is communicating directly with councils so they have one source of truth, and that gives them the confidence to make well-informed and coordinated decisions over the coming months. Behind the scenes they’re clearing the business-as-usual rules that can become massive hurdles in a crisis, so that councils can get on with the job they have to do.”

“The team are developing frameworks that councils can lean on, providing best practice around delivery and decision-making, while ensuring the safety of both their staff and their communities.”

“We are also working with the response unit and other agencies to develop funding and financing options that have the ability to reduce the current rates burden on communities, while maintaining essential investment in infrastructure development.” 

“The diversity of our communities’ means different councils have different needs, and right now we are working with them to address the varying issues they’re hearing from their people.”

Focused spending needed to combat economic impacts of COVID-19

LGNZ President Dave Cull says that in light of the COVID-19 crisis, councils around New Zealand are reprioritising spending and minimising rates increases, but that a request from the Taxpayers’ Union to implement a 12-month rates freeze is misguided and has the potential to put the brakes on economic recovery.

LGNZ is the peak body representing New Zealand’s 78 local councils, providing a unified voice for local government and a pathway for continuous improvement through CouncilMARK™, the sector’s independent assessment and continuous improvement programme.

“We absolutely understand the financial pressure that communities will increasingly face as the economic impact of COVID-19 hits home,” said Mr Cull.

“A number of councils have already stated that they are changing their rating plans in light of this crisis, and every councils is looking at where they can tighten their belts and what financial tools are at their disposal. This includes deferrals and raising cheap debt to minimise the financial impact of rates on households and businesses - after all borrowing has never been cheaper.”

“We know there is going to be financial pain in our communities.  Simply reducing spending would mean adding people to benefit queues while reducing operational capacity at a time when communities want councils at the heart of local emergency responses. As providers of drinking and waste water services, councils are essential lifeline infrastructure providers and in times of crisis such as these our costs may even go up – not down.”

“Secondly, local government is a key infrastructure provider. It should be remembered that 88 percent of New Zealand’s roading network was part funded by rates. If central government is looking to boost economic activity by lifting infrastructure spending, financial constraints on council balance sheets will severely constrain what projects go ahead.” 

“Helpfully, LGNZ is currently working extremely closely with central government and the Society of Local Government Managers on the best set of funding tools and options to help us get through this crisis.”

Local government ready to aid construction bounce back

LGNZ says that councils will and are doing everything they can to help the construction sector get back to work in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown, and that conversations and planning are already underway to get the sector back on its feet.

“The Government is working hard on a stimulus package to help the construction sector bounce back and local government is doing its part to bring forward projects into that queue, so that New Zealand can get back to work as soon as possible,” says LGNZ President Dave Cull.

“Only a true partnership between central government, local government, the private sector and our communities will deliver the projects that New Zealand needs, and provide employment continuity for our construction sector, whether designers, developers or builders.”

LGNZ says that it’s important that councils, contractors and designers are doing what they can during the lockdown, so that when physical visits to sites are allowed, everyone is well positioned to get work underway.

“Councils have been affected by the lockdown like everyone else, but during the past few weeks they have been working to clear planning and building consent applications so that when the opportunity arises, projects around the country can get going.”

“I’d encourage those in the construction sector to respond quickly to council requests for information now, as there’s likely to be a considerable increase in demand for inspections and council guidance when more activity is allowed in the coming weeks and months.”

“The local government sector is working hard to ensure that it can play its part to promote economic activity in every region of New Zealand, because as community representatives, we’re well aware that recessions can become depressions if spending on projects that deliver vital infrastructure and jobs for communities, do not proceed at a time when that stimulus is most needed.”

Local Government have been working closely with a range of central government, local government and industry bodies, including Crown Infrastructure Partners (CIP) and the Construction Industry Council.

“It’s vital that everyone is pulling in the same direction.  We need a joined-up approach to deliver the swift return to productivity that we are all looking to achieve.”

LGNZ also sees an opportunity to progress community-centric infrastructure that increases New Zealand’s resilience in the face of climate change weather related impacts. 

“There is an opportunity also to build communities that are more resilient to floods, climate change and other severe weather events that we’ve recently seen, whether that’s drought or floods, and we look forward to championing new ways of thinking,” concluded Mr Cull.

No council drinking-water provider left unsupported

The local government sector has banded together to open a helpline for all council drinking and waste water technicians, providing an accessible source of advice for small suppliers across New Zealand to lean on.

While drinking and waste water infrastructure continue to meet the changes in demand brought on by the lockdown, a potential reduction in workforce may mean that the essential workers at the helm have less access to sources of technical advice and support. 

The new national drinking and waste water helpline has been set up to ensure that frontline staff continue to have access to specialist operation and process engineering advice.

“We’ve got a lot of dedicated people out in the regions providing lifeline drinking and waste water services, who due to the lockdown don’t have the usual support or contact points” says LGNZ President Dave Cull.

“Considering that circumstances are changing daily, this help line gives our essential water workers a great source of technical support to address any challenges that arise.”

The helpline is the result of work from the Local and Central Government COVID-19 response team, led by the Department of Internal Affairs and including the Society of Local Government Managers (SOLGM), NEMA and LGNZ.

The Tasman District is one area that will benefit from the new helpline. The district covers nearly 10,000 square kilometres, but is home to just over 1% of New Zealand’s population, and hosts a range of drinking and wastewater networks.

“In a large but relatively sparsely populated district such as Tasman, we’ve got a number of water supply technicians working in isolation,” says Mayor Tim King.

“Waste and drinking water systems are complex and require technical expertise and decision-making when factors change, so this helpline gives them support if needed.”

Community drinking water suppliers, who are not on the council network, will also be able to access the helpline directly, but will need to do so through their local council or Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) group.

“The helpline will provide advice from Lutra’s team of senior technical experts, who have been working with Water NZ and we appreciate their assistance,” concluded Mr Cull.

LGNZ Event postponements

  • Postponed: China Mayoral Forum
  • Postponed: Marlborough: Te Maruata Hui
  • Postponed: Marlborough: LGNZ Conference & EXCELLENCE Awards
  • Postponed: Marlborough: LGNZ AGM

Visit the LGNZ events page for more information.

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