The future remains bright for local authorities

New Zealand's local government says that unless more candidates throw their hats into the ring for the local body election, some roles will go unfilled or key roles could go uncontested.

Moana Ellis/Supplied

New Zealand’s local government says that unless more candidates throw their hats into the ring for the local body election, some roles will go unfilled or key roles could go uncontested.

Local government has a bright future, despite the uncertainty of reform, said Waimakariri District Council Senior Manager Simon Markham.

The reform of the Three Waters, Local Government and Resource Management Act and Climate Change legislation are changing the nature of local government, not to mention the challenge of getting people to participate in elections.

But Markham, who has more than 30 years of experience in the industry, said advice would continue to play a role in the years to come.

”I don’t think anyone is saying ‘get your buckets and shovels and go home’. There are many services, needs and requirements that councils provide to their communities.

* ‘It’s time to do this’: Ngāi Tahu praises the government for three adjustments in the waters
* Three Waters reaction: Mayor Phil Goff says Auckland penalized, LGNZ welcomes ratepayer certainty
* Tasman District Council boss to lead local government reform team
* The Timaru report: the governance of local bodies facing a major upheaval

“Councils collect fares, maintain roads, provide libraries, community facilities and swimming pools, enforce building regulations and maintain cemeteries.

“You name it we do it. It is much more than Three Waters.”

Markham has worked in local government since the 1980s and while on Waimakariri District Council he led the council’s recovery from the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes as recovery officer.

He planned to leave the council in October to concentrate on council work, advising councils on the future of local government.

The panel on the future of local government, led by former Waimakariri District Council chief executive Jim Palmer, presented its interim report earlier this year asking five key questions.


New Zealand Local Government Chief Executive Susan Freeman-Greene explains how to tackle rising racism and gender discrimination in local body politics. (First published July 18, 2022)

These included the form of local governance, the role of local government, the relationship with Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the relationship with central government, and how to fund local government.

“The challenges we face are significant, and it’s different from when the current system was put in place in 1989,” Markham said.

”Climate change was present in 1989, but not in academia and research anymore – and now it has happened.”

One of the handbrakes for the councils was funding, with around 90% of taxes and levies collected in New Zealand going to the central government.

This meant councils were increasingly reliant on central government support, while facing an increased burden of legislation, Markham said.

”When you look at issues like climate change or housing, you have to look at what needs to be funded to meet expectations and what is affordable for a country our size.

“And then what should be the councils’ share and what should the central government’s share be and I don’t think we’ve solved that yet. ”

Markham said that while Three Waters reform continued on its current path, local government still had a role to play.

”It will move from being a provider of services and infrastructure to being more focused on the well-being of communities.”

But councils had a role to play as advocates for their communities and in search of solutions.

The newly elected councils will have little time to put their feet under the table, the future panel of local authorities due to present its recommendations in October.

Markham said it would be important for advisers to give their opinion, ahead of the final report due to be presented to the government in June.