Thursday, March 22, 2012

Who's Going To Reign-in Councils Now?

Before he unceremoniously fell on his sword, we saw Nick Smith release details about planned changes for local government, including legislation to redefine the role of local bodies. The devil will be in the final detail, however most right-thinking folk would agree with the rhetoric of reigning-in councils that have strayed into areas well beyond their core services.

There seems to be a long list of silly council meddling that includes buying farms, setting targets for NCEA pass rates, greenhouse gas emission reductions and reduced child-abuse targets.

If we dare to believe it to be true, it would appear that fanciful spending by councils on social, economic, cultural and environmental pet-projects could be severally restricted. Surely most would agree - that's got to be good?

Local government debt had risen four-fold from $2b to $8b since 2002 and rates have risen 7 per cent a year. The brunt of rates increases have been targeted at the business sector including motels that by their nature are highly developed sites on valuable land close to amenities.

While most business sectors are cheerleaders for council reform, the tourism industry have been strangely silent. Until now...

I see that the Tourism Industry Association New Zealand (TIA) has called for urgent clarity around council reforms. They have good reason for to be concerned as it would appear that the redistribution of ratepayers money into "nice-to-have" tourism projects and promotion by local government could soon have the blowtorch applied.

Collectively, councils dole out millions of dollars in corporate welfare in the name of tourism. Councillors like to be seen promoting tourism ventures. Compared to their own dreary lives, tourism is cool, wind-swept and exciting. The photo-ops are tantalizing and all councilors secretly dream of running their own dynamic tourism business. While councils have a habit of subsidising the tourism sector, the tourism industry have become addicted to welfare and due to a vested interest, have lost sight of real net benefits.

The TIA have given examples of council tourism subsidies such as events like "WOMAD, building stadiums that attract major events such as the Rugby Sevens, funding art festivals, and providing financial backing for destination promotion through Regional Tourism Organisations and i-SITE Visitor Information Centres."

Further examples of tourism expenditure by councils given by the TIA are: "Christchurch Ellerslie International Flower Show, which is sponsored and supported by the Christchurch City Council, and community facilities like the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery which receive funding from the New Plymouth District Council."

If we believe the rhetoric from Smith, these nonessential "public good" areas of public expenditure will need to more rigorously demonstrate a clear public good or be privately financed by those with a vested interest.

Is it such a crazy idea that if you have a burning passion, an obsessive hobby or if you see a business proposition in art, sport, events or tourism promotion, that you would first attempt to form a collective of like-minded folk and fund-it yourself?

While there is a risk that some non performing tourism events or infrastructure may be abolished, tourism businesses can at least hope that councils will cease to rape and pillage them with future onerous rate demands. 

Hopefully Nick Smith's replacement will continue to talk tough and carry out the restrictions previously threatened on councils - just don't hold your breath.

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