Mixed reaction to axing plan hearings

An efficiency drive that could spell the end to days of public hearings on councils' annual plans has drawn mixed responses from within the Dunedin City Council.

A recommendation to axe the requirement for councils to prepare and consult on annual plans was included in an independent report released this week by the Local Government Efficiency Taskforce.

The report recommended councils prepare long-term budgets - undertaken every three years - in the first year of their term, but then only annual budgets for the remainder of each term.

The annual budgets would not require consultation unless they triggered an amendment to long-term plans, the report suggested.

The proposals contained in the task force's report were expected to feed into the Government's Better Local Government reforms already under way, as part of a second Local Government Bill next year.

However, the suggestion public consultation needed to become more efficient drew a mixture of applause and criticism from within the Dunedin City Council on Thursday.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said providing a formal mechanism for the public to express their views on council plans each year could generate ''good, constructive conversations'', but could also be ''quite onerous''.

''We don't have too little consultation ... our annual plan submissions process gives everyone the opportunity to come and talk to us, but it's an enormous demand on our staff and our councillors,'' he said.

Changes to that process would not spell the end of consultation, as the council already sought feedback in a number of other ways - including the People's Panel, stakeholder groups and a regular public forum, he said.

''I don't think we'd necessarily lose a great deal ... it's not like we are not talking to the community.''

Council chief executive Paul Orders said the report's recommendations contained ''a healthy dose of common sense''.

Existing arrangements were ''something of a curate's egg - good in parts but also overly prescriptive'', he said.

''Robust dialogue between councils and communities is a pre-condition of healthy local government, and this needs to continue whatever the regulations.

''But current rules also lead to a tick-box regime that baffles the public with complexity.''

However, some councillors were divided by the proposals.

Cr Richard Thomson - a first-term councillor - said he had expected to ''absolutely hate'' the council's annual plan process, but instead had been pleasantly surprised by the quality of many submissions.

There was room for improvement, and axing the process would promote efficiency and save money, ''but I think you would lose some other things that I think are quite important'', he said.

Cr Jinty MacTavish agreed, saying reduced consultation would see councils ''moving backwards''.

''Democracy is only effective if it's participatory ... an annual discussion about priorities is a really useful thing.''

However, Cr Lee Vandervis welcomed the report, saying annual plans were an ''annual sham'' and the suggested changes ''all sound very sensible to me''.

He continued to support consultation on long-term plans, but believed too much time and money was wasted consulting annually on ''every little detail''.

''They are accounting exercises to make everything look OK, when we know damn well it isn't.''

The report said the Local Government Act was based on representative, rather than participatory, democracy.

However, that had become blurred, creating confusion and resulting in ''extensive consultation when it is not required'', the report said.

It recommended amending the Act to reaffirm the representative nature of local government, stressing decision-making remained with elected members, and giving councils more flexibility to decide when to consult their communities.

That should include axing annual plans and their consultation, which ''no longer has the relevance it had''.

''We consider that the annual plan in its current form is inefficient and ineffective,'' the report said.

Other proposed changes included adopting a ''principles-based'' approach to consultation, giving councils flexibility to decide when and how to consult, and limiting the use of special consultative procedures to the long-term plan process.

Long-term plans should also be simplified, based on ''the analogy of an iceberg'', where the ice above water represented information in the plan.

- chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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