Chance to put community back in driver’s seat

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Local government is under the spotlight, but in my view, proactive conversations regarding the future of the sector can’t come soon enough.

Councils are currently facing the biggest shake-up since reforms in the 1980s.

As central government explores a more centralised approach to many aspects of our lives, such as education, RMA and delivery of our water services (just to name a few), we need to highlight the things our community can deliver more successfully than central government’s one-size-fits-all approach.

We are currently one of the most centralised countries in the developed world, with almost 90% of all public expenditure controlled by central government.

So while councils are increasingly called upon to enforce regulations and to plug the gaps in central government services, much of the funding is still coming out of the pockets of our ratepayers. This is unsustainable, and quite frankly in a small area where many of these services are limited, it feels like we are paying double for fewer services.

Councils are increasingly handed down roles and rules from central government, without adequate community input, and without funding. This burden then has to be shouldered by our community and our ratepayers.

Funding opportunities at central government level are opening up all the time. However, this approach has taken away the ability of our community to set their own priorities and to operate strategically. The Provincial Growth Fund seemed to make up the rules as they went along, and there was little to no transparency in their decision making. Something Audit New Zealand would take councils to task over.

Central government funding applications take a huge amount of work with no guarantee of a positive outcome. We have invested too many hours into chasing pots of gold at the end of ever-moving rainbows, and when not successful our community is left footing the bill. When we are successful, there are often fish-hooks or contracts are for short time periods.

How can we plan effectively, and take our community’s views into account when central government timeframes do not line up with our annual or long-term planning cycles?

Mobilising our staff to create in-depth applications for funding (that open with little to no warning, and often only for only a small window of time) has had a major effect on staff workloads and our ability to control our own destiny.

Local Government New Zealand’s Localism website states that “the concentration of power in the central state is holding our country back, fragmenting our public services and making local leaders too dependent on the whims of central government and its ministers”.

In my view, the discussion we are having on the future of local government offers a huge opportunity to this community.

Use mental health as an example. The funding that is provided to the Southern District Health Board covers their overheads, as well as the travel costs of sending experts from Dunedin. We are currently funding specialised people to spend much of their time travelling between centres. Imagine how much more on-the-ground support could be offered if those services were contracted locally.

This is reflective of many of our services, which are delivered from third-party providers operating out of metro centres. This approach results in our people getting a lower standard of care, less access to services, longer wait times, and often the need to travel out of town.

The review of local government gives us the ability to put everything on the table, and look differently at how our services are delivered. It has the ability to put our community back in the driver’s seat. At council, we are building a picture of what this could look like for our community and putting it in front of every minister, member of parliament and official we can. In a time of so much change, we need to back ourselves to lead the conversation.

A reminder, consultation for the Waitaki District Council’s long-term plan closes on May 21. Make sure your voice is heard. Jump on to the council’s website for more information and to make a submission.

  • Melanie Tavendale is the deputy mayor of Waitaki and a councillor for the Oamaru ward