Long-term plans an ‘enormous drain’

Southland District Mayor Rob Scott. PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO
Southland District Mayor Rob Scott. PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO
Preparing a long-term plan (LTP) is an enormous drain on council resources and not a burden central government requires of itself, the Southland district’s mayor says.

"Councils all over the country are stretched," Southland District Mayor Rob Scott said.

"However, it is important for elected members to be able to carry out strategic planning for the organisation.

"My problem with preparing an LTP under the current format is that it’s such an enormous drain on our resources for a document that is at risk of being out of date the moment it’s printed."

Mr Scott also said councils were supposed to be accountable to ratepayers, rather than to central government and auditors.

"Yet governments act like we’re accountable to them.

"Having our work audited is an important factor in the accountability piece for our ratepayers, but not when it drives the whole process and associated extra costs around developing the plan to appease the auditor."

His comments followed Gore District Council interim chief executive Stephen Parry making similar observations and suggesting — amid Three Waters reform uncertainty — it might be best if the requirement to adopt a long-term plan next year was abolished.

This led to five council chief executives across Otago producing a joint statement, highlighting this uncertainty and that councils had to manage short-term cost pressures while continuing to invest in core infrastructure maintenance and development, and they needed "better funding tools to do it".

Mr Scott did not support the idea of a six-year review cycle for LTPs, rather than the existing three years, and nor did Queenstown Lakes District Mayor Glyn Lewers.

Queenstown Lakes was facing immense growth pressures and this created an ever-changing operating environment, Mr Lewers said.

"I agree we are in uncertain times, but just because they may be burdensome or work-extensive is not a reason to stop [LTP] development.

"It is a core activity that elected local government members are tasked to do and, in my view, it is an expectation of our community to exercise our responsibility."

Mr Lewers said many councils across the country were looking at substantial rates rises and preparing the next 10-year plan would be difficult.

"I look back at what we went through during the LTP preparation during the pandemic and it is small fry with what we are facing now."

Challenges needed to be faced head-on, Mr Lewers said.

Mr Scott said quantifying the enormity of developing an LTP was particularly difficult for a smaller council.

However, he observed the LTP took up about 85% of the work for the person at the Southland council who co-ordinated its development, or 1632 hours.

"That’s just her own hours," Mr Scott said.

"That doesn’t take into account all the meetings and work required from activity managers, other staff, the executive leadership team, elected members, external stakeholders, and the public."

He suggested central government might like to try the exhaustive exercise for itself.

"Central government should be required to do its own LTPs, where it has to prepare budgets for the next 10 years and infrastructure strategies for 30 years, and do full consultation on them, in an uncertain world," Mr Scott said.

"After it discovers how much work is required for such little return, that would be a good time for central government to come back and talk to us about how much they enjoyed the experience."

Invercargill City Council chief executive Michael Day said the LTP was an important process that supported community engagement and sound decision-making, including for future generations.