Councils need a new superpower as climate costs escalate


How can councils acquire more revenue so that they can fulfil all their functions including climate costs? This article argues that councils should have a new superpower – to be able to create their own rates-backed vouchers or its own ‘money’.In March 2023 I spent two hours at a council meeting of Kapiti Coast District Council where the topic was a workshop focussing on creating a district wide plan for climate mitigation and adaption.

It seems the apocalyptic climate events of the past weeks in Northland, Auckland, Tairawhiti and Hawkes Bay has had a noticeable effect on our own councillors. It was heartening to see them enthusiastically stepping up aspirations on climate action.

But when it came to implementation there was something to be faced. A reality check was needed.  I was left in no doubt at the end that councils simply haven’t got the resources, the money, the staff to do any accurate assessment of the districtwide emissions. Nor have they the resources to implement what is desirable.

As the climate warms, scientists agree that extreme weather events – including flooding and cyclones – will happen more frequently, and with greater intensity.

Crippling costs of climate events to be met by whom?

Seasoned Herald reporter Ann Gibson wrote that there may be $13b worth of damage from Cyclone Gabrielle, Reuters put it at “over $8 billion”. Gisborne’s key water pipeline was crippled by seven major breaks, leaving some areas without any water at all. The city has had to rely on a backup treatment plant that can only provide a third of what is needed.

The problem is nationwide. Local authorities are already behind in fixing their Three Waters. Wellington City Council has announced a 12.3% rates rise to catch up with their stormwater infrastructure after decades of underinvestment.

After an official report in March 2021 the NZ Herald’s Thomas Coughlan wrote, “The cost of fixing New Zealand’s beleaguered water systems could amount to $110 billion over the next 30 to 40 years, according to the Department of Internal Affairs. That leaves an enormous hole for councils to fill. According to research by the department, councils have been spending just $1.5b a year on water pipes, or $45b over the next 30 years.”

1 News reported on 24 Feb,2023, “Gisborne’s key water pipeline has been crippled by seven major breaks, leaving some areas without any water at all. The city now relies on a backup treatment plant that can only provide a third of what is needed.”

So what do the citizens of Kapiti Coast emit?

KCDC’s calculations of district-wide emissions included emissions from transport, agriculture, waste industry and stationary energy. Yet it is clear from other data that emissions from aviation, clothing, cruise ships and food were omitted.

I guess it is normal, given our culture, to turn a blind eye to what we eat. That wasn’t unexpected. It’s not just the farming practices – the consumer has responsibilities too. Farmers wouldn’t grow beef if there was no market for it. The consumer has plenty to answer for when it comes to agricultural emissions. Maybe it’s time to ask if we are eating in a climate friendly way. The figures against beef are damning.

But they left out emissions from aviation? Of course, they haven’t got the staff or the money to find accurate figures. Kapiti is an area where there are many retired people taking flights to see friends and family or to simply have holidays and working people within the district are flying as a course of their work. More and more these involve overseas travel.

Likewise it would have been challenging for the KCDC staff to find out how many locals are taking high-emitting cruise ships.

So how big is council funding? I looked at the 2021-22 annual report. In our case, (KCDC is a small council), we had $97.9 million expenses for the year and total revenue of $105 million. Total assets are $1.96 billion. We find most of the asset value was in infrastructure, roads and bridges. Second came three waters.

For the year 2019-2020 Government received $116 billion whereas local government received just $13.9 billion. Total revenue $129.9 billion. That means about 10.7% of total income for both comes from local government rates and other charges. So to top up rates revenue, local government often has to apply to central government or elsewhere for grants or add fees and user charges.

Local Government NZ clearly wants revenue to be shared more fairly. They want to adopt a revenue-sharing model under which local government receives an automatic share of national taxation. They say this could be in the form of an annual general grant, based on each district or region’s population, need and unique circumstances.

But sharing the national revenue is really no solution. Just as there is resistance to rates rises, there is opposition to new or increased taxes. And we will be still using a single national currency. A single currency is a monoculture and monocultures are not resilient.

New Thinking on Funding is Needed

Three years ago I wrote a blogpost advocating that councils should be allowed a new superpower – the power to create rates vouchers. Two currencies can then be used. Imported goods need to be bought with national currency, but locally produced goods can be exchanged using local money.

It has happened before successfully. Take the case of Guernsey Island. Guernsey had used British pounds as currency exclusively, but, by a quirk of history had been granted the right to issue its own currency way back in 1690. But by 1916 its infrastructure was falling apart. The sea was encroaching on the land due to the bad state of its dykes. The roads were narrow and unsealed. It had a low income, high debt and they struggled to pay the interest on the debt. After a year’s deliberation they decided to issue their own notes and spend them into existence. With it they built a thriving market near the port.

Market Square Guernsey | Guernsey Attractions |

Above: The Guernsey Market

Despite opposition from commercial banks over the years the Guernsey pound is still used today in conjunction with the British pound. Taxes are low and so is unemployment. According to a 2017 study of a Hungarian PhD student, “Whereas money supply in most countries consists primarily of privately issued bank-debt money (about 95%), Guernsey (States of Guernsey) finance its public spending via quasi state-issued money since 1817.”

And in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression the small town of Wörgl in Austria spent its own currency into existence to supplement that national currency. Because it had built in a circulation incentive into the design, it circulated fast reducing unemployment dramatically. They built roads, bridges and a ski jump with this money. Or rather they paid employees in local currency. The local businesses accepted them for payment because they knew they were good for paying rates.

All this sounds radical I know. But radical solutions are needed in a climate emergency. We are going to witness more and more climate-induced catastrophic scenes like those in Hawkes Bay and Auckland in late February 2023. We simply must come to terms with the fact that if sovereign governments can create money, so should local governments.

There is one caveat: local inflation needs to be managed. There should be a local committee monitoring inflation so that adjustments in the money supply can be made if it occurs.