Thank you Lawrence for the invitation to speak today and to you all for the very warm welcome. Can I also acknowledge Brian Hanna, Chair of the Rural Sector, Jan Barnes, Chair of the Provincial Sector, and the many Mayors, Councillors and Chief Executives here this afternoon.
I have been asking for the local government portfolio for quite some time so I am really enjoying the role and the opportunity to attend events like this where I can talk with local government representatives from around the country.
Over the past few weeks I have spoken at both the Wellington Water Committee meeting as well as the LGNZ Zone Two meeting so I can already see a few familiar faces in the audience who will have heard some of what I am going to cover today.
But as I have done during these previous meetings, I want to make the most of this opportunity today to give you some insight into the relationship I would like to see between central and local government and to give you an update on the Better Local Services Reforms.
And I believe time has been set aside for questions and discussion, and I would love to hear your thoughts so we get the best out of our time here together today.
As some of you already know, I have been both a member of the Napier City and Hawke’s Bay Regional Councils, as well as now having the great honour of being the MP for the East Coast electorate.
I think it is a great advantage being able to see things from both sides of the equation.
I understand local authorities play an incredibly important role in our communities, and as your Minister I want to make sure that is recognised and respected.
One thing I have learned from my time in both the Beehive and the provinces is that more often than not outcomes are best for our communities when decisions and solutions are locally-led.
But I also know a strong, collaborative relationship between local and central government is essential if we are to truly achieve the best outcomes for those we represent.
After all, your focus might be local, but at the end of the day you and I serve the same people, share in the same big issues, and have the same desire to see our regions’ economies and communities thrive.
I think we have made some progress in establishing constructive working relationships, and the upcoming Central Government and Local Government Forum is a good example of this.
But I know there is always more we can do.
I know our councils and the communities you represent are diverse. Each differs in its natural resources, populations, infrastructure and people, and each community presents different strengths and challenges.
Rarely does one size fit all so our relationship is very important in figuring out which policy settings should be universal and which should be specific.
We need to be careful we do not legislate at the central level to manage what are often quite local issues.
But we also need to make sure we are assisting you and enabling you to meet the specific needs of your communities. I want to make it clear to you today that I am committed to ongoing engagement with the sector so my Ministerial colleagues and I can fully understand the impact of central government decisions on you at the local level.
I am especially aware of the importance of ensuring councils representing our rural and provincial populations are supported, and I know that as locally elected representatives you play a hugely important role in your communities.
You provide a focal point, vision, leadership and confidence that local voices are being heard.
So I want to make one thing clear today – when it comes to talk of democratic amalgamation I unequivocally believe that this should be for you and your communities to decide.
But many of you have small rating bases which can make it challenging to carry out many of your necessary functions, and you should not use an unfounded fear of democratic amalgamation as a reason to not embrace shared services.
It is essential we constantly look for ways that councils, especially our smaller councils, can work together to share expertise, resources and services.
This is what the Better Local Services Reforms are designed to achieve. The work we are doing with this legislation is about providing you with more choice and more flexibility in how you work together to provide local services to your communities.
As you are all well aware, the Better Local Services legislation is currently going through Parliament.
You will also know we have extended the select committee report-back date to allow for meaningful consideration of the issues that were raised through submissions.
I want to assure you I am committed to working with the local government sector to ensure a workable and enabling Bill comes out of the Select Committee.
Advice to the Select Committee is subject to Parliamentary Privilege until the Bill is reported back to the House, so I cannot comment on what is being discussed in that regard.
But what I can tell you today is that my Cabinet colleagues and I have taken LGNZ’s concerns seriously.
I understand your headline concern with the Bill is the proposed potential for the Local Government Commission to create multiply-owned council-controlled organisations (CCOs) without the agreement of all affected local authorities.
The policy objective behind this proposal was aimed at preventing local authorities from perpetually vetoing reform proposals to the detriment of their own local communities.
The Bill was never intended to enable the Commission to impose CCOs without full consultation with local authorities and communities.
So the Government’s position is that the power for the Commission to create multiply-owned CCOs without the agreement of all affected local authorities should be removed from the reform programme.
It is a change that is consistent with the intention that the Commission plays a collaborative and more proactive role, with close engagement with local authorities, for the benefit of both councils and the wider community.
I know many of you in the sector also raised concerns about the Bill’s provisions for new performance reporting measures.
In particular, there were concerns at what were seen as unilateral powers for the Minister of Local Government to require performance information relating to corporate accountability and new groups of activities.
My Government colleagues and I have now agreed that these proposed powers should be removed from the Bill.
I still consider it vitally important that councils provide good quality, comparable information about their performance to those you represent. Just as I am accountable to my constituents, it is important you are accountable to your communities.
However, I am of the opinion that the proposed regime may not have been the best way to approach this work.
I still believe there is work to be done on local government performance, but I consider the best approach is for you to lead this work in collaboration with central government.
I am heartened by the work on performance that is being advanced by sector organisations such as LGNZ and SOLGM, including through the Central Government-Local Government Chief Executives’ Forum, and I expect to see real progress in this area.
I want to assure today you that my Government colleagues and I have listened to your concerns around the Better Local Services Reforms.
As your Minister, it is important I understand what is and what is not working for you so I can better identify what role central government should play in moving forward. Like you, I want to ensure your autonomy, but I also want us to build a constructive, collaborative working relationship.
I am looking forward to continuing my engagement with your councils and LGNZ so we can continue to deliver better outcomes for the people we all represent.