From the early days of colonial settlement, New Zealand’s towns and boroughs formed councils as a way of communities working together for the greater good. They settled local disputes and coordinated shared resources long before there was any legal framework.
The first government laws about councils were the creation of road authorities in the 1850s. Dirt tracks could become impassable in winter, yet were essential links for communication and supply. No one person could be expected to shoulder the cost, so the authorities were granted the power to raise money from the landowners who would benefit.
Next came water authorities. Dry summers were a problem best solved by reservoirs. Sanitation followed. The authorities were formally combined into borough councils by the Municipal Corporations Act 1867.
These remain the core services of councils, along with rubbish collection, libraries, and parks. There is a practical need and a clear benefit for them. Central government has dumped regulatory functions such as building consents and dog control onto councils. In addition, councils have chosen to expand their mandate into non-core areas such as hospitality, entertainment, property investment, and even international relations with a craze for sister-cities, all with questionable needs and benefits.
Core services now account for just 40% of rates spending. For decades now, rates money that should have been set aside for repairs, maintenance and depreciation has been siphoned off into other projects. The result is regular sewage spills into Auckland and Wellington harbours and surface flooding – not because of global warming, but because the stormwater pipes can’t cope with increased catchment areas.
The solution has been large-scale borrowing that has seen council debt to income ratios rise from 100% at the turn of the millennium to 250% in 2020 and a projected 280% in 2027. This would have been enough money but like our rates, much of it has already been siphoned off into other projects such as Hamilton’s V8 races and Auckland hiring David Beckham for a football match in 2008. Remember those?
Councils have employed large marketing departments to justify outrageous decisions. As councils are monopolies and don’t need marketing, this is labelled “communications”. I dispute that term, because it implies a two-way process, and the public are not being listened to. This is why voter turnout has fallen to one third of eligible people. It is clearly not a mandate from the people.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in the focus of council business. A back-to-basics approach is essential. The only way to do this is a grass-roots movement to vote in councilors committed to fixing the broken system. That means you, dear reader, need to help by talking to people about this. The good news is, with only a third of people bothering to vote, we just need a few more sensible people to get a majority.