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Owen McShane

Let’s take our councils back

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Many people around the country are unhappy with the performance of their Councils and demanding action of one kind or another. Perhaps surprisingly, the same key issues are being debated in places as diverse as the UK, Ireland, Florida, California, Texas, Melbourne, Sydney, and Honolulu.

The hot topic everywhere is how did citizens lose control over their own destiny? Why do people in so many rural areas, suburbs, towns and cities, feel so helpless, frustrated and unable to provide for their own economic, social and cultural well-being? What has gone wrong?

A fairly clear picture is emerging. We have been seduced by the benefits of size.

While many of us believe ‘small is beautiful’, we have stood aside while our political and bureaucratic decision makers have worked on the premise that ‘bigger is always better’.

For example, when I first came to Kaipara District as a refugee from Waitakere City about fifteen years ago, one of the great attractions was the Kaipara District Plan which was about as thick as my thumb and hence was comprehensible. The Plan had been written by Reyburn and Bryant, a small surveying/planning firm in the region, and consents were processed by a local family consulting firm and a single engineer. The Plan was tailored to the district’s needs and getting consents was a simple and inexpensive process. This was the situation throughout much of New Zealand – and indeed around the world.

But things in Kaipara District have changed dramatically since then, and this Northland District shares this experience with thousands of other councils around the world.

The current Proposed Plan has been written by Beca Planning, a division of one of New Zealand’s largest multinational corporations. Beca employs over 2,400 people in offices around the world, offering engineering and related consultancy services in water, defence, education, healthcare, transportation and power.

At the same time, Kaipara’s plans, engineering standards and works contracts were administered by CPG, a Singapore based subsidiary of the Downer Group which employs over 21,000 people in over forty countries – Australia, Asia, the Middle-East, Africa, the United Kingdom, Antarctica, New Zealand and the Americas. Works Infrastructure is also a subsidiary of Downer. CPG recently took over Duffill Watts, AC Consulting and Coombes Consulting, securing a nationwide and varied array of monopoly consulting contracts with councils throughout New Zealand.

Kaipara voters are understandably concerned that their council candidates live in the district and are well connected into the community. But when the successful candidates took office they found themselves dependent on the services of two multinational corporations for the preparation and administration of their planning and engineering documents, and the management of all council works and projects.

Because large organizations like to deal with other large organizations, such companies are enthusiastic supporters of further council amalgamations, and also favour letting contracts to other large organizations, preferably with offices across the road in main centres, rather than in small towns such as Dargaville, Maungaturoto, Kaiwaka or Mangawhai.

About twenty years ago, large consulting firms around the world realized that there was a whole new industry emerging around local government – an industry devoted to urban and rural planning, environmental management, and works contract management. They embarked on an international programme of mergers and acquisitions and targeted either those companies with monopoly contracts with councils already in place, or simply bid for the next round of contracts as they came up for tender.

They typically bid low to get their foot in the door and then used their claimed “international expertise” to ramp up the scope, or nature of the projects, until the revenue streams looked more healthy to their shareholders.

Now let’s be clear. There is nothing wrong with large multinational corporations per se and these companies all have excellent reputations, and have been responsible for many high quality architectural and engineering projects here and around the world.

But New Zealand’s RMA District Plans are supposed to serve and reflect the needs of the people and communities of the districts. That intensely democratic function is foreign to a corporate culture dedicated to solving large scale engineering problems.

These multinationals have set up their planning divisions in a hurry and have staffed them with recent graduates. When small organizations contract with a large consulting firm the contract is handed to the junior staff – the senior staff have bigger fish to fry.

In contrast, small consulting firms are managed by the owners or senior staff, who work on all their contracts, and any younger staff serve a proper “apprenticeship”.

The end result has been that Kaipara District, like so many others, has been colonized by multinational corporations who are now busy exploiting the local resources, and the locals’ bank balances in particular. To the multinational corporations, our districts and cities are little more than well funded ATM machines.

It’s time for people and communities to take back control of their Districts and their Plans.

How to win our own ‘War of Independence’.

Fortunately, there are models of cities and regions that have resisted this corporate takeover of their economies and communities. They are in places as diverse as Switzerland and Texas – which certainly demonstrates that topography has little to do with it.

The Swiss have kept their council planning and management functions under community control largely because of their long-standing commitment to local direct democracy. The average self-governing commune has only 2,000 people. Small enterprises tend to deal with small organizations and the Swiss have kept it that way. In Texas, local community control is driven by a strong commitment to property rights, self governance, and “rugged frontier individualism”. But the outcomes are remarkably similar.

In particular, communities in Switzerland and Texas both get the housing and neigbourhoods they want. If you want to migrate to Switzerland you have to apply to the Commune for your permit. So they even get the people they want!

But many citizens now want to repel the colonizers and demand that their councils employ the services of local planners, surveyors and engineers – staffed by people citizens are likely to meet in the library, fitness center, or market.

Such planners are subject to the rules they write for the rest of us – and hence have our interests at heart because they are their interests too.

How to Identify a Coloniser’s Plan.

The colonial empires of the past collected taxes from their colonies – with or without representation.

The new bureaucratic colonisers “clip the ticket” – and need to clip as many tickets as they can – and as often as they can.

The two “styes in the colonisers’ eye” are “permitted activities” and “farming”.

By definition any permitted activity does not require a resource consent and is hence a lost opportunity to clip the ticket. They must go – and they are fast disappearing all around the country.

Early RMA plans list the multitude of farm activities as permitted activities, even if some have to pass a few simple rules. These exemptions severely constrain the ticket clippers’ cash flows and so they have to go too. Farmers throughout New Zealand are now having to apply for resource consents to change their land use from say forestry to dairy, to operate a greenhouse, to renew water rights, to build farm dams, or change from pasture to horticulture, or even, in future, to increase their stock numbers, as in California.

Colonisers’ plans claim that you can do anything you like provided you don’t break the rules.

But there are a multitude of rules, and tripping over one threshold can unleash a multitude of assessment criteria which are highly subjective and give absolute discretion to the bureaucrats, who then get to clip a booklet of tickets many times over.

For example Kaipara farmers might think they can still build barns as a permitted activity but check out the rules on impermeable surfaces, driveways, street crossings: tickets galore.

For example, rule 12.10.8 tells us that any activity is a permitted activity if:

b) In any one hectare, the area of any site covered by buildings and other impermeable surfaces is less than 10% in the Rural zone where it is within an overlay.

This means the area of a farm building and all the driveways and parking and turning areas cannot be more than 1,000 sq metres without triggering a resource consent, even if the farm is 100,000 ha in area, but happens to be within an overlay.

In many plans the rules are so restrictive that almost any proposal will trip over a hurdle somewhere and become a discretionary activity. The High Court has now ruled that even if the activity has no adverse effects it can still be declined because of a failure to advance the objectives and policies elsewhere in the plan. Hardly anyone is so familiar with the interpretation of these multitudinous objectives and policies that they can deal with them in preparing their application.

Some rules are designed to catch as many people as possible. For example, why is the maximum size for a sleepout 36 m2?

Simple; a standard double garage is 6m x 6m or 36 m2. The slightest increase in area, to turn it into a sleepout, makes it a discretionary activity. Put a tub or a sink in it and it becomes an a second dwelling. A book of tickets to the World Cup is cheaper.

Dwellings are a permitted activity in Waitakere City, but a Councillor explains that it is many years since a house has been built without requiring a resource consent.

True to historical form, the 21st century corporate colonisers are determined to reduce our status from free, property-owning citizens, to that of serfs required to pay levies, taxes, or tithes for the privilege of undertaking any personal initiative, or even to find out if we can, only to find we can’t.

Ringing the Changes to take your District Back.

The following initiatives by any incoming council would help reinstate genuine local democracy within your District:

1. Provide an independent RMA Mediation Service to deal with issues prior to granting of consent, and challenges to conditions of consent.

2. Make sure your Regional Council adopts a “hands off” approach to local land use planning.

3. Enable community governance by local Neighbourhood Associations, restricting council control over such communities only to matters affecting soil, water and air. This provision caters for special groups such as Eco-Villages, Transition Towns, Liveable Buildings, Papakainga Housing, or any other communities who want to be in control of their own lives.

4. Modify consenting processes to provide a choice of council liability (the current system) or private liability (supported by insurance and guarantees)

, as is being proposed for the Nationwide Building Consent process. This empowers local engineers, planners and surveyors and reduces duplication of costs.

5. Introduce competition at every stage of consenting and management contracts.

6. Employ senior staff with qualifications in key areas of operation to oversee consulting contracts and to deal with routine applications for resource and building consents in-house.

7. Enable landowners to provide new rural lots on an “as-is-where-is-basis” and record this status on LIMs. This eliminates another opportunity for monopoly consultants to add to costs.

8. Take advantage of High Speed Broadband, and the increasing number of professionals distributed throughout the District, to provide decentralised services to local communities from local “Distributed Office Centres”.