Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Locals: a guide to the horror story of Council politics in Aotearoa

Some people might remember the 2003 homegrown horror The Locals. It’s about a couple of guys, Paul and Grant, who head cross-country on their way to a weekend of boozing and surfing. However as they head through heartland Aotearoa they run into ‘the locals’, a grim assortment of lost souls who inhabit a kind of half-way place between death and life.

As their journey into the netherworld unfolds, with Grant and Paul chasing a couple of girls from the 80s they begin to witness a series of horrible scenes of murder and mayhem. It’s a pretty cool film if you ask me, a kind of coming of age/road trip/horror tale built around events that many a young New Zealander can identify with - car crashes, broken hearts and random violence.

It’s also a pretty fitting metaphor for young people discovering the state of local body politics in this country. City councils and regional authorities seem to have become populated by the undead and the unhinged. 1980s style neo-liberalism rules ok in the Town Halls of Aotearoa as the populace sleeps unaware of the madness being carried out across the country by “a creepy mob of local hicks”.

Take for example North Shore City, where Mayor Andrew Williams has just announced that he wants to be the Super Mayor. I can’t think of a better ambassador for Auckland. Nothing says suburban degeneration like late night texting, drink driving and public urination. Or take the river side metropolis of Whanganui, where maverick Mayor Michael Laws blends racist populism with panache. Not lowering the flag when Tongan King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV died was pretty cool, except for the racism that means Laws would never bare his proverbial buttocks at those in Buckingham Palace. Local body politics is a mad, mad place where a cast of rogues and has beens vie with each other to come up with the most ludicrous ideas- Wellywood signs, supersized sports stadiums and “party central”. Yet when they aren’t trying to lift their cities and provinces profiles, politicians like the singing, dancing, te reo fluent Gisbourne Mayor Meng Foon and the pot smoking, straight talking, wife beating Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt are somehow holding together our public transport networks, water resources, libraries, sports and art galleries, public parks and getting the rubbish to the tips and recycling centres. Yet only 44% of people bothered to send back their voting papers in the 2007 local body elections, with the vast majority of those being 50 plus.

2010 could change all that. Across the country grassroots anger is flaring up around water issues, privatisation of council assets, council housing and public transport. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Auckland where the Super City restructuring has turned local politics from a marginal cock fight over issues like dog licences and cycle lanes into a gladiatorial contest between the centre left Manukau Mayor Len Brown and the centre right Auckland City Mayor John Banks. The winner in this struggle not only takes control of the city’s colloseums (CCOs) but will be able to set the long term vision of this augmented council structure. With 2010 a flashpoint in the struggle over control of town and country, it is worth having a guide to local body issues, which for most is as hard to follow as two ghostly girl racers in a souped up Holden on the way to a party. With that in mind Socialist Aotearoa will present a series of blogs around the local body elections. In this first part of our guide to the local body elections we highlight the ongoing struggle over water, council housing and libraries.

Water
Key to the debate about water is the ongoing discussion around water metering, which is seen by left activists like Penny Bright and the Water Pressure Group as a first step towards privatisation. Water metering which exists in Auckland City and Papakura has been deeply unpopular and this user pays system shifts the cost of water off landlords and on to the working class. In Wellington water metering is emerging on the horizon, with a trial of water meters due to begin across the Wellington region.

The trial of 150 meters in Hutt City is going to cost ratepayers and residents between $22,500-$75,000 or between $150 and $500 a home. Yet water metering won't solve the water crisis the Wellington region faces in coming years, it will merely add an economic dimension to an environmental problem.

The environmental research group Beacon Pathway built an environmentally friendly house in Waitakere City and monitored the drop in water use. They found that just from installing a rainwater tank, low flow showerheads and taps and a dual flush toilet, the household could reduce its use of mains water by a whopping 66%. We need urgent action to reduce water usage but the mathematics of metering don't make sense. If installing a rainwater tank costs around $2000 and reduces a households mains water demand by 50% then it will give similar savings in water consumption per dollar paid by the Council. It is also has the added benefit of dropping a households water use by five times what metering does. "Trials" of just about anything are the usual way to implement an unpopular policy and it's not just $22,500-$75,000 we're talking about. The "trial" is a stalking horse for a grand plan to spend over $70 million installing water meters in every home in the Wellington region. That kind of money buys a lot of rainwater tanks and greywater systems, and fixes a lot of leaky pipes. In Wellington councillor Brian Pepprell and the Wellington Residents’ Coalition is vigorously opposing metering, while in the Hutt Valley Grant Brookes and the Valley Action Network are set to make it a key plank of their campaign for council seats in the Hutt City Council.

In Christchurch issues of democracy have become intertwined with water issues after the Government suspended the democratically elected Environment Canterbury councillors and replaced them with Government commissioners. The move sparked protests including a picket of one of John Key’s public forums where a 17 year old activist caused $7000 of damage by jumping on Key’s limousine and shouting, "You can't drink money, you can't drink sh*t, you can't steal our votes and get away with it!" Maximum respect to the activist, who got diversion for taking a militant stand against a Government move that Forest and Bird says is about fast tracking the damming of Canterbury’s wild rivers and which is widely seen as a resource grab for corporate dairy.

Maintaining opposition to metering and privatisation over the coming months and years is crucial to prevent water going the way of telecommunications and electricity-into the hands of greedy corporate monopolies who will make the poor pay for every drop and make a profit to boot.

Commercialisation
The ongoing commercialisation of public services by city councils is a cause for concern as rightwing politicians attempt to impose the logic of the market on the commons. One ongoing struggle has been around the corporatisation of libraries. Gordon Campbell documented the trend in a widely read article Closing the Books on Libraries.
In Kaitaia and Kaikohe, residents must pay $15 in a “membership fee” to be able to use their public library. In Matamata, borrowers have to pay $1 a week to rent ordinary non-bestseller books. In Dannevirke and Pahiatua, library users over 18 have to pay $10 a year as a ‘borrowing card fee’ to rent books. In the Wairarapa, Tasman, Buller Westland/Hokitika. Selwyn and Gore regions, various charges apply for ordinary stock on the shelves. In Tauranga, the local council is reportedly aiming to recoup up to $430,000 via library charges over the next three years, by introducing a user-pays regime for free adult fiction and non-fiction – initially at the rate of 50 cents a book, rising to 80 cents and then one dollar in a year’s time. It also proposes to cut seven equivalent full time library staff positions and reduce library stocks by 30,000 items.
This crackdown on libraries is becoming a familiar theme, around the country. Membership fees, rental charges, access fees, overdue fines and other cost barriers are going up. Simultaneously, the funds for new stock, for library staff numbers and opening hours, and for digital access are being squeezed – except on items or services where there is a robust regime of cost recovery. What the plight of libraries signals is the erosion of free access to even the basic forms of knowledge that they hold. Ironically, libraries are coming under siege in the wake of the economic recession – just as citizens are using them more and more for knowledge access, for entertainment and as a community meeting ground.
Defending our council services from the profiteers and speculators remains an ongoing task for working people as the neo-liberal user pays mindset infects councils and the ‘80s style profit based model of service delivery is applied to libraries. Is this the much vaunted
knowledge economy we have all been waiting for? We should certainly hope not.

Housing
New Zealand is in the midst of a housing crisis. The facts speak for themselves,

• 10,500 New Zealanders are on the Housing New Zealand waiting list.
• Building activity has fallen to a level last seen in 1993.
• Social housing is on the decline, in 1991 it made up 33% of the market, today it makes up just 19% of the market
• In 2004, it was estimated that around 375,000 New Zealand children were living in dwellings that are likely to be cold, damp and expensive to heat and that exposure to poor housing performance is likely to continue.

In the Hutt Valley, UrbanPlus, the CCO that provides social housing aims to increase the number of council owned houses in Lower Hutt from 187 to 210 by 2013. Yet Council forecasts, “indicate that an additional 4,500 homes will be needed in Hutt City over the next 15-20 years, or approximately 205-300 dwellings per annum. At present, the number of new dwellings constructed per year falls significantly short of this figure –indicating a shortfall is likely in meeting the City’s future housing needs unless the rate of development increases.”

In 2008 in Christchurch, with the country’s biggest swag of social housing outside Housing New Zealand, the Council sought to increase rents for tenants like low income pensioners by a whopping 24%. As local activist Byron Clark wrote of the struggle,
The Christchurch City Council’s controversial rent increase for social housing has been overturned by the High Court. Legal action was taken by the welfare group the Council of Social Services (Coss), who have achieved a significant victory, with the High Court has also ordering the council to pay Coss’s legal costs for the judicial review. According to local news paper The Press;

The judge said the council failed to properly assess the significance of the decision and failed to give proper consideration to the tenants’ views. It had also failed to properly consider the implications of a government funding option to help upgrade the housing. As a result “the tenants have been substantially prejudiced”
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker says he has not ruled out an appeal of the High Court decision.

Parker claims that the ruling will result in substandard housing as there would be less money to spend on needed upgrades to the councils 2649 rental units. Parkers council had no trouble last August however finding $17 million to bail out local millionaire property developer David Henderson.
Just last month Waitakere City pensioners successfully resisted a proposed 5% increase to the rents they pay on Council homes. “25% of net income or 30% of gross income - this is the battle line where we, the pensioners, are presently holding fast,” said Frank Broomfield, Voice For Fair Rents committee chair. “The Council have shown their colours by standing resolutely in opposition to Government affordability guidelines as reflected by Housing Corp’s rent of 25% net income, and other Auckland Councils.”

Council housing is going to continue be an issue for the working class to mobilise around and struggle around against property developers and council bureaucrats who put profit before people.

The next blog in The Locals series takes aim at the struggle over public transport in Auckland.

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