Hot on the heels of the recently passed Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Act 2012, the Local Government Efficiency Taskforce, led by public lawyer Michael Holm, has now released its independent report on how local government consultation, planning and financial reporting requirements and practices under the Local Government Act 2002 (LGA) can be streamlined. The Report, which has been described by Local Government Minister David Carter as "an essential building block" of the Government's Better Local Government reform programme, focuses on developing specific recommendations for legislative changes as part of the next round of legislative reform in 2013.
The Report identifies mechanisms in the LGA which the Taskforce considers create a barrier to efficient and effective engagement and decision-making and recommends greater flexibility and discretion in the way councils choose to engage and make decisions. Recommendations made in the Report include:
- Replacing the prescriptive approach to decision-making set out in sections 77 to 79 of the LGA with a principles-based approach.
- Requiring local authorities to produce an Engagement Policy, setting out how and when the local authority will engage with the community, to be included in the local authority's Long-term Plan (LTP).
- Limiting the use of the special consultative procedure to the adoption of LTPs or matters that are captured in the local authority's Policy of Significance.
- Replacing the requirement for an Annual Plan with a requirement to produce an Annual Budget for the same purpose. The Annual Budget will not be subject to consultation, unless the Budget involves matters that fall within the scope of the council's Policy of Significance.
- Reducing the current mandate of the Auditor-General in auditing LTPs.
- Reviewing local government and resource management legislation to identify ways in which the need for multiple plans under these Acts could be reduced and prepared in more streamlined, consistent, and readily understandable formats.
- Considering how planning and consultation under the Resource Management Act and the LGA can be integrated and streamlined.
While the Report should be lauded for seeking to streamline some of the inefficiencies that exist in local authority decision-making processes, there is the concern that the recommendations could be seen to be undermining the recent reforms to the LGA. Those recent reforms sought to tighten the scope of local authorities' activities and make local authorities more fiscally responsible and accountable to the community. In contrast, the recommendations in this report could be seen to provide local authorities with more flexibility to limit the involvement of communities in the decision-making process. Arguably, these recommendations could allow a local authority to be less accountable to the community as it can make decisions internally and without community input.
The Report has now been provided to the Government for consideration. It will be interesting to see whether these recommendations are adopted by the Government in the way set out in the report, and included in any subsequent local government reform legislation (anticipated to be introduced in 2013). We will watch to see how the report is implemented into the next stages of reforms under the programme.