Making local boards work for you

 

The following is a thinkpiece submitted to the NZ Herald on January 20 2010, showing how local boards could work well for communities and return local decision-making back to local residents under the new Auckland Council.

One of the most crucial issues facing us as we head towards creating a Greater Auckland is how we retain and strengthen the voice of our many different communities.

Local boards must have the power, the influence, responsibilities and the budget to meet the needs of their residents and ratepayers.

The guiding principle of the council I would be privileged to lead at the end of this year is that local boards should be the people to deal with issues that relate to their local community.

This means Greater Auckland councillors can concentrate on the “big picture” while local boards keep their ear to the ground and look after the needs of their suburbs and neighbourhoods.

For example, while listening to people’s concerns I have heard loud and clear that some communities are worried about the impact of off-licence liquor outlets. We need to give your local board the ability to decide liquor policy for your area.

If people in Manukau are worried there are too many corner booze shops, then the local boards should have the power to decide numbers and liquor licence applications. If, say, Glenfield wants more wine shops or licensed cafes then, again, it’s the local board there that should decide.

By giving the power on this kind of issue to local boards, communities can make the call where there are negative effects from alcohol sales without affecting those other areas of the city that want to maintain their vibrancy and late-night culture.

Currently Auckland City community boards get money for local improvements (called Slips) that fund playgrounds, tree planting, public artworks and other projects that the boards choose to do. Those community boards also have modest discretionary budgets that let them fund community activities, charities and public events in their areas.

We need to expand on this system, the new local boards need bigger Slips and discretionary funding, so that spending in your neighbourhood is decided at the grassroots, not at the town hall on Queen St.

The local boards will need the authority and the budget to service the needs of their communities. A great example of this is where local boards in South Auckland have a policy of free entry to ratepayer-funded swimming pools. Elsewhere councils provide partially funded entry to pools.

It should be the local board that decides whether the pools are free or not. The Greater Auckland Council should establish a baseline subsidy as part of providing fair and equitable services across the region, and then the local boards should decide whether or not they top up the subsidy from their own discretionary budgets or spend that money on other priorities.

The whole city should not fund free pools in one area and not in others. Why should a retired ratepayer in Orewa pay for free pools in Manurewa when they can’t access them, even if they wanted to?

Under this system, if your local board listens to what you and your neighbours say and decides to have free pools, then the subsidy will come from your local rates.

Local boards could have targeted rates that apply to specific projects and services that their community want.

Ratepayers will need to know who is seeking your money, for what purpose, how much and why. The local boards will need to be accountable and communicate directly with you through local papers and dedicated local board website pages.

I am talking about real grassroots democracy when it comes to how your rates are spent at a local level.

It is vital the Auckland Council staff support your local boards becoming a success.

That is why I want the performance of the new council’s chief executive to be assessed on his or her ability to deliver on local board satisfaction and effectiveness.

The mayor’s office needs to liaise directly with the local boards, independent of the Auckland Council organisation, so as to stay in touch with local issues. The mayor of a Greater Auckland must be the mayor for every community across our region.

The new Auckland Council and your local boards will need to be clearly focused on the needs and aspirations of your community and on delivering value for your rates.

Strong local boards and an Auckland Council that supports them is the best way to deliver a Greater Auckland.