Monday, 19 August 2013

There is Power in a Local Board

The final nominations for Auckland Council elections became apparent on Friday night, I was anticipating some interesting media, online and off, about the democratic tussles underway for Auckland’s Local Boards.

Local Boards are a new innovation to local body politics in New Zealand, put in to the Auckland Council as part of the amalgamation to a “super city” (as opposed to several smaller apparently less super cities, districts and a regional council).  Political decision-making at Auckland Council now happens at two levels – Governing Body (the mayor plus ”ward councillors”) who determine regional matters, and Local Boards (“board members”) who have responsibility for the vast bulk of local activity and decisions.  The structure is much more akin to a regional council (Governing Body) and borough councils (Local Boards) than the city/district council and community board structure that exists elsewhere and held sway in Auckland until 2010.

A lot of people don’t get this.  Partly because it wasn’t communicated well in the rush to amalgamate.  Partly because some Local Boards and board members (and ward councillors) have not really appreciated the power they have and thus haven’t made the most of it, yet.  Mostly because it has been a long slow process to turn around the many staff, structures and cultures of the old institutions that have been cobbled together.  My observation is that ward councillors and many senior staff have really struggled to give Local Boards their dues.  Almost all of the current Governing Body members are former mayors, city, regional or district councillors, and have taken time to adjust to a different way of doing things; some still aren’t really there.  Maybe next term.

To start with Local Boards were massively under-resourced.  The Board I sit on, Puketapapa (Mt Roskill), which is one of the smaller metropolitan Boards, had one dedicated staff member in the initial allocation, and the rest were shared across as many as five boards.  Slowly but surely it became apparent to the Powers The Be that this wasn’t going to work, for staff, departments or elected members.  These days we have three staff full time dedicated to our board (two advisors who do a lot of the necessary work, and a PA) plus another three who we share, in our case, with one other Board.  If we had had this level of support in place in that crucial first year, when we were undertaking extensive community consultation around the Local Board Plan and the Long Term Plan and lots of other important policies and plans, then I think we could have done a much better job.

Auckland Council’s website provides a reasonably technocratic explanation of what Local Boards are responsible for.  To get an idea of what this looks like on the ground in my neck of the woods, here’s a bit from the Roskill Community Voice website where I try to give an impression of the scope.  A list of the physical facilities accessed by 56,000+ residents gives only part of the picture; there’s local community development, economic development, input to regional and isthmus matters, the Unitary Plan, heritage matters, community funding and leases, and so much more.  The Remuneration Authority recently estimated the typical local board member will need to put in 24 hours a week, and chairs close to full time.   It’s not an insignficant role, the power and funding has great potential to make change for local communities.

Yet you’d think from the media coverage that Local Boards were pretty much irrelevant.  The mayoralty and ward seat battles are getting much coverage and analysis, but Local Boards very very little indeed, despite the fact that Local Boards have far more of a role in determining the local residents’ daily experience of Council-run bits and pieces than the regionally focused Governing Body.  There’s a certain amount of laziness (and, to be more charitable, lack of newsroom resourcing) in this lack of attention; there are 149 positions, and of course many more candidates.

Hopefully local community newspapers will fill this gap in the coming weeks, because, as I wrote about last time, the media has a vital role to play in accountability and democracy and all that good stuff.  Citizen journalism can do some of the work, and I look forward to seeing some of that going on as the election campaigns unfold, particularly at Auckland Transport BlogLouis’ OutlookTalking Auckland and The Standard (hopefully here too, but it won’t be me writing it, no time!).

Finally an example of the power of a Local Board, to change Council status quo to meet the needs and wants of the local community.

Keith Hay Park, in Mt Roskill is a large sports park, home to a number of major sports clubs including Three Kings United, one of the biggest football (soccer) clubs in New Zealand.  It has had two playgrounds for a while – one at the southern end (which my family refer to as “the big kids’ playground”) and another by the central area which was more suitable for smaller kids and quite delapidated.  There’s also been ongoing troubles with the large carpark next to that playground raised by locals; potholes, bad layout, poor markings, and just not really doing the job for the pools, gymnasium and fields it serves.

Now there was a view that what should happen was just boring standard replacements for the carpark and the playground.  But members of the Local Board saw an opportunity to work with the sports clubs, pools, gymnasium and locals to come up with a new layout for the central area, including the carpark and the playground, so funding was put aside for a proper concept plan process, including consultation and community involvement.

Funding was also secured for carrying out some of the work that would come out of the concept plan.  And amongst that money was a significant dollop for a new playground, not just the modular business-as-usual approach that council staff wanted to put in, but a great new design referencing the local soccer club, with some imaginative bits and pieces like inbuilt mini trampolines, an astroturf hill like at Silo Park, and an area that will (when complete) encourage kids to practice their footballing by kicking balls through holes in the fence.  You can see an album of photos of the new playground (not yet fully complete but already being well used) here.

The new carpark will be much better too, and include a lot of planting, but it is great to get the playground done first and show the community what their feedback can lead to, with the support from Local Board members.  Elected politicians saw an opportunity to have a proper rethink about an area, involve the community and key instititutions in that, and put the money in to carry it out.    Win!

So scrutinise the Local Board candidates carefully – seek out information, ask around, and vote for people who can make stuff happen with your community, not just rubber-stamp business-as-usual.

(Further info:  I’m standing for re-election to the Puketapapa Local board on the Roskill Community Voice ticket, and you can find out more about all of there here and here).

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