Saturday, October 17, 2009

Power-crazed councils must be checked

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 14.)

Not long before the last election, I had an animated discussion with a political scientist about the role Rodney Hide was likely to play in a National-led coalition government.

The academic was convinced that Hide would wield little, if any, real power. Because the ACT leader represented a small party to the right of National he would not be in a strong bargaining position, whereas the Maori Party – which was pivotal to National’s ability to govern – would be able to extract lots of political concessions.

Well he was right about the Maori Party, of course; no surprises there. But he was wrong about Hide, which proves again that supposed experts can be woefully off-beam in their assessments.

No one who knows Hide could have thought for a moment that this stroppy politician would be content to accept a tame, lap-dog role in government. And so it has turned out.

Assigned the local government portfolio, normally one of those low-profile Cabinet jobs like Customs and Internal Affairs, Hide has taken to his new role with typical gusto. Aucklanders must be shell-shocked at the speed with which he has driven through his controversial “super city” plan.

I understand the misgivings of those who worry that such a far-reaching change is taking place at such pace, but I can see why Hide has done it this way. If you give the opponents of change time to marshal their defences, proposals get sandbagged and nothing happens.

This is probably truer in local government than in other sectors of the economy, given that it’s the domain of wily local politicians and bureaucrats intent on protecting their own empires.

Of course it’s not just Auckland that’s feeling the heat under Hide. Councils elsewhere must also be squirming with discomfort at the shake-up he has demanded.

While commending some councils for their innovative, ratepayer-friendly initiatives, he has signalled a crackdown on red tape, compliance costs – many of them imposed under the former Labour government – and excessive rate increases. Most of all, he wants councils to concentrate on their traditional core roles.

We should welcome this approach because local government exercises wide-ranging powers over the way we live, and the potential for misuse of those powers is considerable.

One abuse that needs to be checked is the propensity of councils to routinely increase rates without regard for the state of the economy or the ability of property owners to pay. It’s all too easy for councillors – or more precisely bureaucrats, which is where real power usually resides in local government – to regard ratepayers as a bottomless cash barrel.

Earlier this year Wairarapa MP John Hayes subjected councils in his electorate to withering criticism, accusing them of spending like Paris Hilton. He gave the example of a farmer who, struggling to pay an $11,000 rates bill after enduring three back-to-back droughts, found himself lumbered with a nine percent increase. Hayes also asked why pensioners in South Wairarapa were expected to pay a 20.17 percent increase when inflation was running at less than 3 percent.

These are examples of councils lamentably out of touch with their constituents.

Another disturbing trend in recent years has been for councils, in their eagerness to promote economic development, to play at being entrepreneurs. Council-sponsored art festivals, car races, stage productions and garden shows have hoovered up public money with little regard for commercial risk.

These are often vanity projects for councillors and officials. Occasionally they succeed, but only with generous ratepayer subsidisation. Sometimes they fail spectacularly. Auckland Regional Council lost $1.8 million last November staging an exhibition football match starring David Beckham and Auckland City Council took a scandalous $2 million bath with a production of My Fair Lady that attracted less than half the audience needed to break even.

Show business and professional sport are high-risk undertakings at the best of times. Even the most astute promoters can come a cropper. Why on earth should public money be placed at risk to stage them, other than because the hapless ratepayer is a captive source of money?

Equally disturbing is the tendency of some power-crazed council officials to treat citizens as if they are the enemy. A classic example was Hamilton City Council’s mad attempt to fine residents $1500 each for daring to watch the V8 street races from the roofs of their own homes.

The council thought to seek legal advice only after imposing the fines, and had to back down. What an indictment of the bossy, punitive mindset that seems to afflict some Town Hall bureaucrats.

Other examples include Hastings City Council’s demand that a resident take down a sea wall erected, at considerable cost, to replace a previous one protecting his house on a notoriously erosion-prone stretch of coast, and Central Otago District Council’s ban on the use of local Oamaru stone in the construction of rural houses because some community busybodies thought it was – get this – too visible.

It was in that part of the country too that pop singer Shania Twain had to jump through endless hoops before coming up with a design for her house that satisfied all the nitpicking demands of the local planning commissars.

In Wellington, meanwhile, pettifogging planning dictates have triggered a row in the historic suburb of Thorndon, whose residents can hardly install a light bulb without getting a council dispensation.

Something has gone seriously wrong when councils are constantly at odds with the people they supposedly serve, and when bullying bureaucrats seem to regard it as their purpose in life to place obstacles in the way of the people who pay their generous salaries, rather than try to make things easier for them. If the Minister for Local Government can change this, he will have earned our gratitude.

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