By Bruce Wills
There is a famous psychological condition called the Stockholm syndrome that we probably know it better by the popular expression, “going native”.
You see, in the 1970’s bank workers and customers were taken hostage in a failed bank robbery. Somehow, within days, the captives started to see things through the eyes of their captors. Unbelievably when it all finished up, several of the captors refused point blank to give testimony against those who had taken them hostage.
Ever since, it has provided fertile material for psychologists trying to figure out why people in fear of their lives, could bond with the people holding the trigger.
I don’t wish local government people to read this the wrong way but there is a degree of the Stockholm Syndrome applying when some are elected to office.
Councillors are there to represent their constituents and be a democratic check on the vast powers and trust devolved to local government officers. With local government spending increasing 119 percent in less than ten years, Federated Farmers' policy staff this year submitted on local and regional plans in 68 out of New Zealand's 78 councils.
You can say we are local government experts, because outside of Government and the sector itself, no other professional body has such an intimate association and understanding of the sector.
It also means we possess a lot of folk knowledge. We have seen anti-council firebrands tamed by process.
Conversely, meek councillors have turned into fierce protectors of constituent rights.
As the former United States President Lyndon Johnson ‘subtly’ observed, it may be better to have people inside the tent pissing out, than those outside pissing in. Whatever the cause, we have seen a tendency for some councillors to only remember who put them there once every three-year’s.
There are a great many who work tirelessly so I don’t wish this to become a gross generalisation.
Yet councillors are not elected to be PR machines for council staff, council policies or council processes.
They ought to be asking questions, tough searching questions, to ensure delivery for the people a council serves.
In the United Kingdom, councils are generally divided by those that are seen to be ‘officer led’ or ‘member led’. There is a power dynamic and I see in our stronger councils, a degree of member leadership; where their vision is imparted upon officers to deliver. The reverse applies in weaker led councils.
This all explains why we welcome passage of the Local Government Act Amendment Bill late this week.
The Bill’s passage is good news for ratepayers.
Since 2002 rates have increased an average seven percent each year; massively above inflation. This growth is unsustainable and if it is to be reined-in, councils and communities need better guidance and clarity on what the priorities for local government spending should be. This is what the amending Bill does.
It changes the purpose of local government away from an activist, open-ended job description, towards something more like what most people think local government should be. In other words, a focus on local infrastructure, local public services and local regulation.
Damien O'Connor, Labour's primary industries spokesman, is right when he says the public needed to be more aware that city and district councils' wastewater treatment plants were more detrimental to the health of rivers than farmers.
Quoted in the Nelson Mail, he said, "In the past few years farmers have cleaned up their act incredibly. Now it's time for the rest of the country to do the same”.
Here, here. Yet we only give the Bill a B- because it continues to tinker at the margin; only going part way to containing and reducing the rates burden we all face. As Katie Milne, our Local Government spokesperson observed, “What‘s needed now is something bolder and to us that’s funding reform, which so far has been the missing element of the Government’s work.”
What is perhaps less well understood is that funding policy affects a councils’ regulatory performance. Most obvious when central government makes laws for councils to enforce, but doesn’t provide the means to do it.
Limited funding options is also a factor in housing affordability, for example, councils imposing stiff development contributions that push up the costs of sections. The fact remains we are still living in 17th century England when it comes to an overreliance on property ownership as a major means to fund local government.
The burden of funding local government must be spread more equitably.
We are operating in the 21st century after all. So the Bill is a start but for far too long have we seen Ministers think it is job done. It is not. Getting local government funding right should have been the first port of call, so it is incumbent on us to keep it first and foremost.