Andrew Little Speech to LGNZ Conference

Thank you for having me here today.

Local Government New Zealand’s work of advocating for New Zealand’s 78 local councils is critical as we upgrade New Zealand’s economy, and make sure it’s delivering for all our people.

Whether in Auckland, Akaroa, or Alexandra, the work of our local councils is critical to our quality of life. By helping councils achieve more, LGNZ is making a real difference in people’s lives. 

I want to acknowledge your President, Lawrence Yule, members of the LGNZ board, and all Mayors and Councilors here today. I also want to acknowledge my Parliamentary Colleagues David Clark, Clare Curran, and Meka Whaitiri.

And I want to start by congratulating LGNZ – and in particular the Young Elected Members Committee – on the launch of your new discussion paper about “the 2050 challenge.”

The work you’re doing to identify big, long-term shifts in our communities, and develop a strategic response to them, is hugely important. As your paper notes, politicians who face re-election every three years can sometimes forget this long term planning.

LGNZ’s work on “the 2050 challenge” is actually quite similar to Labour’s project on “the Future of Work.” Both projects look well beyond the electoral cycle to identify large-scale changes coming to aspects of life in New Zealand. Both projects ask what we can do today to make those changes work better tomorrow.

It’s great to see both LGNZ and Labour taking an over-the-horizon approach to strategic planning. I am sure people in the future will look back on all this work with thanks.

You know, the partnership between central and local government is one of the most important, and most under-valued, in New Zealand. Some of the most important public services we enjoy are controlled not by politicians in Wellington, but from leaders drawn from their own communities. They come from you.

I’m talking about all the work you do bringing vibrancy to your towns, and the facilities you provide to help people stay active and happy, as well as the critical local infrastructure you deliver.

Every New Zealander, every day, is affected by decisions you make as their local mayors and councilors. There have been some remarkable success stories around New Zealand, and lots of the credit for them belongs with their local government leaders.

Councils have helped their regions make major advances by thinking creatively about the kind of leadership local government can provide. Venture Southland and Venture Taranaki, for example, are both owned by local councils. They provide their respective regions with the services of an economic development agency and a tourism agency under one roof. They drive economic growth.

That’s a heck of a long way from “roads, rates, and rubbish.”

You know, when I first visited Wellington, nobody called it the “cultural capital of New Zealand” or “the coolest little capital in the world.” Look at the city now, a centre of movie production and the arts. So much is different, and better, and a lot of that cultural transformation in Wellington was council-led.

A similar story can be told of so many cities and regions in New Zealand. You do great things for your communities, and you should be justly proud of what you contribute.

As I see it, the role of central government should be to enable you to do that great job even better, and after next year’s election that’s what I intend to deliver.

As part of my programme of engagement with community leaders across New Zealand, I was really pleased to host a productive session with members of LGNZ’s board at Parliament last month.

One of the issues board members raised was the recent reforms to the Local Government Act, which perversely remove from the council’s purpose a responsibility to look after the “economic, environmental, cultural, and social wellbeing” of people in its community.

Instead, the government has downgraded councils’ purposes to something much narrower, limited in scope to “local infrastructure, local public services, and performance of regulatory functions.”

I agree with LGNZ that councils and mayors are more than providers of parks and libraries, and chargers of rates. Leaders have much broader responsibilities than that.

When a Mayor champions her city around the country and overseas, that doesn’t have much to do with infrastructure, public services, or regulatory functions. Often it’s about attracting investment or tourism, which is much more about looking after the long-term wellbeing of the community.

I see no need to continue with this narrow-minded legislative fiction about Councils. Under Labour, your legislative mandate would once again reflect the true nature of the leadership work you do, looking after the wellbeing of your community.

And under Labour, we’re going to do more to support local democracy – something that’s too often forgotten as central government grabs more and more power for itself.

For example, right now, there is legislation working its way through Parliament which would allow central government to establish CCO’s over the heads of local councils. CCOs that might not even have elected members on their boards. That’s not right and we need a better approach.

I also want to briefly mention the RMA. I don’t have the time today to detail all of the flawed changes proposed in the current bill amending the RMA. We agree with the sound submissions from just about every council and with the position taken by LGNZ.

As we have said before, the bill as it stands undermines local decision-making. Its ministerial powers are virtually unlimited, enabling the minister to override decisions and plans made by you, the democratically elected representatives of your community.

As our environment spokesperson David Parker has said, we are actively trying to remove these offensive provisions and will not support the bill if these major flaws are not fixed.

I think the importance of local government has been short-changed in Wellington for too long. Local government affects everyone in every corner of New Zealand.

Local government’s importance to New Zealanders should be reflected in where the portfolio sits in government. That’s why, I would take that work programme from the Department of Internal Affairs backwater it is currently sitting in, and I would put it front and center, where it belongs, in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

And one of the first things I’d do for local government is to make sure every local mayor in New Zealand has the same powers as the Mayor of Auckland. Auckland’s Mayor has a special role, written for them in statute, to:

  • Articulate and promote a vision for Auckland, and
  • Provide leadership towards that vision, including by leading the development of the Council's plans, policies, and budget.

Here’s my question: Why would we provide those powers to the Mayor of our biggest city, but not also provide them to Mayors in smaller towns like New Plymouth, Nelson, or Invercargill?

Why shouldn’t they also be empowered to “promote a vision” for their cities? Why deny them the role of “providing leadership towards that vision?” I say we should empower all our local Mayors, not just one.

I recognize the role of a Mayor is much more than leading the council – the Mayor’s job is to lead the community. It’s only when local leaders have proper authority to act on behalf of their communities that we achieve true partnership between Parliament and Town Hall.

Part of that spirit of partnership is about communicating and reaching consensus on issues that affect both government and local Councils. Sometimes that involves being sensitive to the impact on local government of a purely central government decision.

A good example is the government’s decision to, in real terms, freeze the police budget in recent years at a time when the population has been growing.

That series of decisions has forced some councils to spend more on security guards at local events, because they can’t be confident police will be in attendance. It’s Wellington’s decision to take, but it has local impact.

The same can be said of the closure of suburban and community police stations. Community safety, through good local policing, is vital, and at the very least local councils should’ve been consulted.

At other times, partnership involves proper consultation and consensus-building about issues that affect local Councils directly. Simply imposing your will, as central government has done with its decree of blunt “league tables” of local authorities, is not a good way to make policy, or to act like a governance partner.

It’s important that citizens have high quality, relevant information about the way they are governed, both from Wellington and locally. But my commitment to LGNZ is to work with you, not around you, to make sure citizens get their information in a broadly agreed framework that recognizes your legitimate concerns as well.

The partnership between Councils and central government is never more important than in regional development. Our view is that, for a long time, the current government has neglected regional New Zealand. New Zealand’s regions, and their local councils, need the government’s support.

Right now, private investment is flowing to the big cities, where the public infrastructure to support them is fully developed. But more than 60% of New Zealanders live outside Auckland and Christchurch.

If our regions don’t succeed, it holds all of New Zealand back. Smaller centres desperately need public investment in critical infrastructure, so they can unlock their potential to contribute to a growing New Zealand economy.

We’ve made that case for many years, and were grateful for LGNZ’s support when we brought it up in the 2014 election campaign. Labour’s policy is for a major Regional Development Fund, aimed at unlocking the economic potential of as many regions as possible.

I’m looking forward to working with local Mayors, councils, and MPs to identify local infrastructure projects, usually in the $20-$30 million range, that will help kick-start economic development in their region.

One important element of regional development is maintaining the regional roads network.

Over the first seven years of the National government, the regions endured a $163 million real cut in road funding. That meant roads that are poorly maintained, and less safe.

Across New Zealand, we have 210 accidents for every 100,000 people. In regional New Zealand it is 237. In last year’s Budget, central government delivered only half the funds for regional development that they’d promised on the campaign trail. Regional New Zealand and local government deserve a more reliable partner

More broadly in the transport arena, I know another difficult issue for councils is strategic planning. As your populations swell, especially in some of our larger, northern cities, existing transport corridors come under intense pressure.

And the demands for a meaningful New Zealand response to climate change, taking in both mitigation and adaptation, can put a strain on transport corridors from a very different direction.

I also know that projects to change the transport infrastructure are very difficult to coordinate. There are so many moving parts, so many different demands.

One thing I know we need in our transport planning is a coherent strategy that takes in road,rail, coastal shipping and ports. With a mode-neutral transport system we could build better transport in our towns and cities, and a more efficient freight transport network.

But that coherence is harder to achieve in New Zealand, partly because road transport planning comes under NZTA, but rail planning doesn’t.

I’m open to discussing creative solutions to ensure that strategic coordination takes place, including by delegating NZTA the added job of strategic planning for our rail network.

Labour’s housing policy will also be a big boost to our regions. We all need a vibrant construction industry and good quality housing. Our Affordable Housing Authority will work in partnership with local and regional councils to advance major urban renewal programmes.

South Dunedin is a case in point. There’s an area whose low land, high and rising water table and ageing housing presents a complex urban renewal challenge, but through our Affordable Housing Authority, that renewal becomes possible.

As you’ll know, my travels around New Zealand this year have focused on helping New Zealanders live the Kiwi Dream once more.

For many, that’s about good, secure work that lets people develop their skills and provide for their families. For others, it’s about picking a path the growing crisis in the New Zealand housing market.

It used to be quarantined to Auckland, but as many of you know the effects of that crisis are now being felt around New Zealand.

I was very pleased to see Lawrence Yule’s comments on housing earlier this month. Many of his suggestions, like addressing skills shortages in construction, removing the tax incentives for property speculation, and creating Urban Development Authorities, are already Labour’s policy, it is great to see we’re aligned on this urgent challenge.

One of the best suggestions Lawrence made was for a shared strategic housing plan, with buy-in from central government and local councils alike.

I couldn’t agree more. For me, that convergence of views shows Labour and LGNZ are aligned on a much broader issue. We both see that central government and local Councils should be partners, sharing the responsibility of looking after the wellbeing of our people.

I’ve been adamant that Labour backs the Kiwi Dream, but we can’t deliver those gains without help from Councils. I’m looking forward to working with you to deliver vibrant cities and regions in this great country of ours following next year’s election.

Thank you.