Mike Yardley is a Christchurch-based writer on current affairs and travel, who has written a column for Stuff for 15 years
OPINION: Forcing local councils into toothless submission via far-reaching national policy directives and rushed legislative change is becoming a familiar refrain.
The “takeover” of council water assets under the Three Waters reform model has been the most explosive lightning rod to date.
But the government’s increasing propensity to throw its weight around and relegate local authorities to bit-player status, while it cultivates its centralisation agenda, is unmistakeable.
The Christchurch City Council is currently grappling with a fistful of big state decrees, including the imminent prospect of being ordered to fluoridate the city’s water supply.
Personally, I have no objection to fluoridation, but if the Ministry of Health command the council to do so, surely the Ministry should foot the bill.
Why should the ratepayer be mauled for the $63m set-up cost, when local decision-making is being gazumped by the Director-General of Health?
Bank-rolling preventative public health measures should not fall under the purview of the city council.
If the state wishes to force the issue, the establishment costs should be footed by them.
An even more egregious example of government overreach is the defanging of local councils’ ability to determine density settings across their respective cites.
The National Party should never have signed up to this nonsense.
Mandated under the National Policy Statement on Urban Development and the Housing Supply Amendment Act, this radical rewrite will allow for the mass-construction of three homes, three-storeys high, across greater Christchurch, without resource consent.
Neighbourhoods adjacent to public transport routes and shopping precincts will be eligible for six-storey dwellings.
The council is about to gauge public feedback on the changes they’re required to make to the District Plan, albeit with some discretionary wiggle room over “qualifying matters” like protecting areas with high heritage value.
But that is very site-specific and a high threshold needs to be met – rather than extending across entire neighbourhood blocks, let alone a suburb.
Currently, the council is proposing according that protection to only 11 specific areas.
Riccarton Bush Kilmarnock Residents Association’s Tony Simons made a powerfully impassioned deputation to the council on Thursday, pointing out that what they propose to safeguard, amounts to just 7 per cent of their pre-existing list of designated heritage and character areas across Christchurch.
Similarly, it’s unlikely the steady degradation of the Garden City’s tree canopy will be halted.
It’s completely obnoxious that Parliament’s densification directive will haphazardly disperse multi-level development away from the city centre fringe, which is where it’s most desired, to monster suburbia at will.
The proliferation of multi-storey dog kennel developments has been needlessly let off the leash, crudely undermining our central city densification endeavours, while swathes of suburbia faces being degraded as mini-concrete jungles.
Last week’s building data, indicating a record $2 billion in new builds being approved in greater Christchurch vividly indicates that the region doesn’t need to be bossed by the Beehive over delivering housing supply, nor subjected to their cookie-cutter urban planning template for Tier 1 cities.
Dovetailing with the government’s growing penchant for centralisation, lurking in the background is their Future for Local Government Review.
Billed as an opportunity to future-proof local governance for the next 30 years, so that it’s “fit for purpose and actively embodying the Treaty partnership,” this Ministerial Review is a year into its work.
Its draft recommendations are due out in September, ahead of the final report in 12 months’ time.
I actually welcome this review. It’s a timely opportunity to look under the hood to assess the profound inefficiencies, feel-good folly and culture of waste that soils public confidence in local government.
The case for more council amalgamations will be examined as will future funding mechanisms, beyond jacking up rates. Hallelujah. (Perhaps local authorities should simply be bulk-funded, via general taxation, for the delivery of core services.)
The review’s last interim report highlighted a timely observation from the Productivity Commission.
“Central government fails to acknowledge local authorities’ independence, frequently treating them as agents of central government who can be expected to unquestioningly implement national policies.”
That’s the narrative we are seeing play out with Three Waters, housing density and the power grab over fluoridation – while foisting the compliance costs on the ratepayer. And it shouldn’t be tolerated.