Reversal Needed of 1989 Local Government Reforms [3]

Well this series has wandered all over the place, and this definitely will be the last part. Today’s local government issue of note is of course the 3 Waters proposals. 3 Waters is one of those things you think councils should regard as their core business, but the real problem with it is the value of the infrastructure and the fact so much of it was originally constructed by the government and handed over. New subdivisions used to be built by the Ministry of Works back in the days when we had one, paid for with taxpayer funds. The billions of dollars of 3 waters infrastructure we have could never have been afforded by ratepayers – which is why the government pitched in to repair the networks in Christchurch after the major quakes. But now those billions in assets have become a political football. The entitled elite group in society who effectively dominate local councils, see their power base being eroded. So this is local government politics 101. It is that people don’t just protect their interests through national elections, they also take their opportunities in local government elections. So the fact is these councils have considerable political power and can use it to further the interests of various groups of people. Now we have the dilemma here because the bigger cities historically all had drainage boards to effectively manage two of the three waters. Labour kowtowed to its own local politicians’ constant clamour for bigger empires when drainage board were all rolled into councils in the 1989 local government reorganisation. The result was a loss of transparency and focus and that gets us to where we are today, the sole exception being in Auckland where in the 1990s, the then National government separated out Watercare, with an eye to future privatisation. In order to get past the financing dilemma and perhap because of their short term thinking, they piggybacked Watercare onto existing Auckland City funding arrangements, so that Auckland Council can still meddle in Watercare by restricting its borrowing.

So here is the rub: to get the financing that the government says we need to fix up the public water infrastructure, the entities need to be separated from direct council political control. Luxon’s policy claims this financing option isn’t needed and councils can fund with their own borrowing. He has been careful not to offer wide scale government funding because National still wants to find the ability to fund tax cuts for the rich somewhere in its future term. But the problem essentially lies in that politicisation of infrastructure that is extremised in local government because it is much easier to intimidate councils if you have a bit of money or influence. Many commercial developers like to threaten or actually carry out legal action to force a council to give them what they want, and a significant amount of the time they are successful. This is one factor driving the unsatisfactory exploitation of hazardous land which is being developed for housing in all sorts of areas. At a regional level, the bullying ensures that councils will hand over as much water to farmers as possible and impose the least stringent environmental conditions and controls on farmers and businesses particularly extractive industries such as coal mining and those which are liable to cause significant pollution.

After the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011, there was consternation over the amount of unsuitable land which had been developed for housing, and the resulting repair bill. There was very briefly a suggestion that insurance companies would sue CCC for allowing this development. That notion didn’t last long and the Government quickly stepped in with red zone buyout offers, because the real truth was that CCC could not have stopped development on the land. The legislation is very contradictory in this respect. The Buildings Act says a building authority must not allow construction on a site that is subject to one or more natural hazards. But the Resource Management Act in practice makes it very difficult to enforce that type of requirement or expectations. So councils are left being bullied around by big businesses and entitled elites, and this is much easier to achieve at a local level than with the government in Wellington; not that it doesn’t actually happen in Wellington either, but that the councils cave a lot easier.

That also exposes another issue: the major interest people have to represent with local councils is their personal property holdings, particularly in housing assets. The wealthy, of course, own expensive houses in expensive suburbs, and a major interest they pursue is ensuring their suburbs keep getting more expensive over time, which ensues making sure all of that inconvenient infrastructure that the whole city needs and which they use themselves, ends up as far away from their neck of the woods as possible. Here, councils have typically done a bad job of spreading the assets around the city. Hilly suburbs tend to have fewer resources of all types; shopping centres and schools are not commonly seen there in a city like Christchurch, although in Wellington there is so much hilly territory that it is impossible to keep these things out. This kind of thinking has been expressed in Christchurch City’s just-published proposals for high density housing, according to the latest government edict, which are going to exclude all the elevated areas of the city on the grounds they do not contain core public traffic routes. The elitists’ disdain for public transport has ensured this outcome. But even in undulating Wellington, in the heart of a core public train corridor, the Johnsonville Line, the mayor conspired with residents’ associations to keep intensification out of the surrounding suburbs on the specious claims that the line was not a rapid transit corridor. Residents associations, of course, have no use for the railway line. Perhaps this is a foretelling of how councils generally ignore and marginalise railways in their area, as TSBNZ often remarks upon in relation to level crossing safety. So in Johnsonville and the other suburbs the railway goes through, residents associations have put in NIMBY submissions saying there is no need to intensify in their areas.

The Government has created the intensification requirements as part of a general recognition that a market exists for people who don’t use cars to get about on public transport and have smaller houses without parking spaces or garages. Hence the focus on intensifying along public transport corridors in particular. The problem in Christchurch City is that in the last six years of Labour’s term, opportunities to improve public transport were farmed out to councils to investigate instead of being centralised under either a Wellington or local single purpose agency, as was the case in Auckland under Helen Clark. The net result was one of the most intensive efforts from the then mayor Lianne Dalziel to advance the local Labour objective of further cementing CCC in a dominant place in the Canterbury Region and indeed in the whole South Island, thus shoring up their existing power base at the local level. The mayor even got special legislation passed by the government to try to make it easier for CCC to coerce Ecan into handing over its public transport control to the city, but the regional councillors would have none of it. We may have a jaundiced view at times of the ability of Ecan to properly manage and resource public transport, but they are far more competent than the city council could ever be at this task in being one level removed from the blatant self interest that dominates territorial affairs. The National Party has stated they would push for a regional transport authority to be created instead of Ecan if there was ever a hint of the latter giving up its role and this legislation is likely to bite the dust under any future National administration. Local Labour party branches were not successful in taking over regional transport into territorial hands anywhere else either although there has been similar agitation in Otago but nowhere near as intense, perhaps because the bus drivers’ union there has been more active in publicising the failures of the city council to provide the appropriate local infrastructure such as suitably sized and located stops.

Nevertheless Dalziel had a grandiosely named “Greater Christchurch Public Transport Joint Committee” set up between CCC, Ecan and other local councils and made herself the representative for Christchurch City (some of the other represented bodies sent councillors rather than mayors) to ensure her political platform was given sufficient air time in front of the regional council and others. The Committee was set up in 2019 as the result of Dalziel’s continued incessant campaigning but as Ecan did not choose to delegate all of its functions to the Committee it was largely a different forum that ended up being dominated once again by CCC and the inference can be made that perhaps the other agencies saw through the agenda and carried on much as before. The CPTJC in turn has given way to the Greater Christchurch Parnership that has ensured that CCC will continue to dominate the government process for regional public transport development created with the announcement of $100 million in funding at the 2017 election. As noted on the previous post on TSBNZ labeling the Greater Christchurch Partnership a sham, this objective has now come through as a recommendation to develop a short and very expensive light rail or BRT corridor within the city limits with no mention at all of the transport needs of those living outside the boundaries. This was always going to be the case in a process in which CCC was guaranteed to gain the upper hand. The huge folly of the government completely failing to understand that public transport needs to operate over widely flung urban areas and that this means development needs to include Selwyn and Waimakariri off first base. The Government is exposed as completely foolish in failing to recognise in advance that the capture of public transport development funding by the most dominant local authority in the region would be a foregone conclusion.

Well these three articles have wandered all over the place ans TSBNZ apologises profusely for writing so much on this topic but this has all been coming together for a long time in that in this blog there is a very great lack of enthusiasm for the ongoing mismanagement of local affairs by territorial and regional authorities and a desire to see better and greater things achieved for the Canterbury region and other regions by putting better local governance structures in place. This really is the end of this series of three articles and now it really is time to get onto other stuff.