What is the “Future for Local Government” initiative trying to achieve?

What is the “Future for Local Government” initiative trying to achieve?

Susan Freeman-Greene is the Chief Executive of LGNZ and a keynote speaker at our Future-Fit Aotearoa Conference this September. She believes that when local government is strong, our communities thrive – and so does Aotearoa.

We caught up with her to look at some of the issues that local government is grappling with, including the impact of the Government’s “Future for Local Government” initiative.

What is the “Future for Local Government” initiative trying to achieve?

The review is all about making sure local government can deliver for our communities. It means looking at what works well, now while being visionary about what the future could look like.
LGNZ has been calling for a conversation about the future of our councils for quite a while. We’re really pleased that Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has created this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine our future.

The local government sector is grappling with a lot of reform at the moment, including in three waters, resource management and housing.
All of those areas have a serious impact on the well-being of our communities.
And while New Zealand has changed hugely over the last 30 years, the tools for funding everything our communities needs have stayed the same.

What input did LGNZ have into the development of the Future for Local Government initiative?

We worked closely with the Minister and the DIA to develop the terms of reference. We wanted to ensure visionary thinking about the sector’s future, which would help build thriving communities with the support of sustainable local government organisations.

We didn’t want the initiative to become an inquiry into what’s wrong with the way local government operates today. It was essential that the review was future-focused and identified what might be possible if we use our imagination.

This initiative is about looking at the whole context – who delivers what where – including what’s delivered by central government.

Our objectives for reform align with Central Government objectives. They include ensuring the well-being of our communities, the ability for local democracy to be front and centre of the decision-making process, and leveraging the best partnerships between Central Government, NGOs, and the business sector for project development.

LGNZ is excited about being part of this national conversation. The review process will take some time to complete, but it’s an opportunity that we haven’t had for a long while, and the sector must make the most of it.

At the launch of the initiative, Minister Mahuta spoke about what could be achieved if we think about local government differently, and that’s the essence of the review. LGNZ supports the Minister’s vision and is confident that the review panel has the right mix of professional and cultural backgrounds to ensure a positive outcome for the sector.

What will be the role of Local Government in the control of three waters in the future?

A significant amount of work has been done on a new operating model for three waters.

Over a year ago, National Council agreed that the status quo of three waters service delivery was unsustainable. We agreed to work with the Government on their preferred model that included the perspective we bring from our communities, and to ensure the policy proposal worked within the broader local government “operating” system.

The Government is proposing four new, large service delivery entities. These would be separate from councils but remain publicly owned. Their scale means they will be able to borrow enough to fund the investment needed, a position that has been thoroughly tested with ratings agency Standard & Poors. The scale is also important for effective quality and economic regulation. And to build and develop capability and capacity in the water services industry, as well as creating operating efficiencies.

LGNZ has been working with DIA to develop a national-level package to wrap around the reform proposals that addresses the sector’s concerns and supports our communities, and this was announced by the Prime Minister at the LGNZ conference in July.

That $2.5+ billion package seeks to ensure no council is worse off and every community is better off after reform. The “better off” part of package will help councils maintain momentum as they transition out of delivering three waters services and focus their strategy and operations on improving community wellbeing outcomes. The “no worse off” part of the package includes targeted support so that no councils are financially worse off when they transfer their assets. This is designed to protect communities from any negative financial consequences of councils losing their water services role.

The three waters delivery reform work has built on central and local government’s joint Covid-19 response – and demonstrates a new way that we can work together. Both central government and LGNZ see this partnership as laying the groundwork for the outcomes of the Future for Local Government review.

We have also agreed to spend more time working through some issues that are important for councils. These include:

  • Ensuring all communities have both a voice in the system and influence over local decisions.
  • Effective representation on the new water entities’ oversight boards so that there is strong accountability to the communities they serve.
  • Making sure councils’ plans for growth are appropriately integrated with water services planning.

How are councils progressing in freeing up land for housing?

Several different levers are being pulled to promote new house builds. However, progress is not uniform around the country.

The Ministry of Housing and Development is working closely with some of the growth councils, and strong partnerships are being developed that will promote the building of new homes.
LGNZ is involved in the bigger question of identifying the barriers to councils creating more housing or releasing land for subdivisions. Some of those conversations relate to the infrastructure that is required to support new housing. Councils must seriously consider what infrastructure (water, sewerage, roading, public amenities) is required to support population growth in their area and how that can be funded.

LGNZ has surveyed all Councils to identify the real barriers to residential housing growth and how many projects are ready to go but for funding the support infrastructure. We’ve received some good responses, and that data has added value to the thinking of the Minister of Housing, Megan Woods. We’re continuing that work, and it has exposed some potential areas of housing development that weren’t originally in the Central Government’s mix.

It’s a time of change for local government. Is this scary or an opportunity?

I believe it is a bit of both. The sector is grappling with reform on a number of fronts and this can feel exhausting and overwhelming. But at the same time, change brings significant opportunities especially if we can keep focused on the big picture.

Local government is so critical to our communities’ well-being. If we can combine our strengths with those of Central Government, we can build strong communities and make them places that people want to live in and care about.

Right now, local government has a massive opportunity to increase the social, environmental, cultural and economic well-being of our communities.0