Now that A.C.T. Leader David Seymour has announced his intention to return his party to its traditional small government, lower taxes stance, one has to wonder how long it will be before the employees of city, district and regional councils around the country find themselves in his sights. Whilst the A.C.T. Party has yet to say anything about local council bureaucracy, its swing at central Government with a promise to lower M.P. numbers to 100 and reduce the Executive to 20 Ministers, would not have gone unnoticed by the Public Service Association. So, how well do politicians, Mr Seymour included, actually understand how city, district and regional councils work?
Shortly after the Government appointed Commissioners took over Environment Canterbury in 2010 there was a critical commentary in The Press asking what the 500 staff (myself included at the time) did there. The commentator might have been genuinely curious or not have knowledge of council’s statutory requirements and thereby possibly not an awareness of why so many staff exist. Also there is a perception among many politicians that public servants are just a bunch of paper pushers creating endless documents and trying to set policies about which they know nothing. This is not true in many respects, not least those “bureaucrats” are employed to do the statutory work that their Ministry or Department of the Crown requires.
At a city, district or regional council one is going to need policy planners who know how the statutory plans prepared in accordance with Resource Management Act and Local Government Act requirements. Those plans are reviewed by statutory requirement every several years and shorter term plans which reflect more immediate priorities that are consistent the longer term goals and objectives have to be prepared. There is also the prospect that a developer proposing something like a new subdivision will have looked at an existing plan, found that their proposed activity is non compliant and ask for a Plan Change to be made to enable their activity. For all such activities qualified planners are needed.
To ensure that that work gets done one needs a range of support staff from across a number of disciplines. At a regional council for example people with knowledge of Geographic Information Systems are needed to translate environmental data such as ground water wells, zones at risk from debris flows or liquefaction into maps that spatially display the data. To get that data in the first place and do the physical analysis specialists such as hydro geologists, possibly engineering geologists and so forth will be needed. Planning staff will be from a range of planning backgrounds such as urban, environmental and transport and will also include policy analysts.
A council has a difficult balancing act to do. Do it hire an extra planner part time on a permanent basis to take some of the administrative pressure off the full time staff. Or does it hire a fixed term full time planner who is only around for a couple of years. Given that their budget comes from the rates people pay, they need to choose carefully.
So, to cut a long story short, this idea that they are all “paper shunters” is really misleading if not out right wrong.