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Long-term plans and consultation documents

Having audited long-term plans (LTPs) since 2006, we understand the significant effort that councils invest in their preparation.

We want to make the audit process for the 2021-31 LTPs and consultation documents as straightforward as possible. So, we’ve put together some information to help councils to:

  • understand our responsibilities and our main focus areas in the audit;
  • prepare better documents for their communities; and
  • develop project plans to ensure their LTP process go smoothly.

Where and how can councils improve?

There are several main areas where councils could build on the work they carried out in 2018. These are outlined below and will be a particular focus of our audits of the 2021-31 LTPs.

When developing its LTP, each council should consider the key challenges it faces, where the council wants to get to, and what it plans to do to get there.

Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an effect on all councils. We expect the effects of Covid-19, and councils’ planned responses to it, to be reflected in their 2021-31 LTPs.

Recovery from Covid-19 will take a long time, and councils need to be clear about their plans and their financial implications. 

Councils will face conflicting priorities, such as a decrease in revenue balanced with the affordability of services and capital expenditure programmes. They must assess their community’s acceptable level of rates increase against its expected levels of service, while remaining financially prudent.

Covid-19 will likely have significant impacts on councils’ financial forecasts in their 2021-31 LTPs. The issues arising also have the potential to seriously affect planned timelines for the 2021-31 LTPs. Sound project planning and management, and close liaison with auditors, will be very important.

Climate change

Climate change is increasing the severity, frequency, and effects of climate-related events on councils’ assets and services.

Most councils assumed in their 2018 LTPs that climate change would not significantly affect their communities in the next 10 years. These councils deferred making decisions about how to respond to the longer-term effects of climate change. A small number acknowledged their limited understanding of the risks involved and had a plan for addressing them.

In their 2021-31 LTPs, councils should actively seek to identify the potential effects of climate change on their assets and activities. Assumptions about climate change and its effects should be based on sound supporting information and should be key building blocks for the LTPs.

Councils’ climate change assumptions should cover the most likely scenarios for any effects on their infrastructure assets, as well as how they will manage those effects and fund them.

Consultation documents

Consultation documents should concisely and clearly present the significant issues, plans, and projects that councils intend to include in their LTPs. Key issues should be presented so that people can easily understand and respond to them.

The consultation document’s purpose is to provide an effective basis for public participation in a council’s decision-making. It should describe the key issues proposed for the LTP and make key choices and implications clear to the community.

Identifying key consultation issues early will help focus LTP preparation and provide the framework for an effective consultation document.

Infrastructure strategies

Infrastructure strategies identify the significant challenges and scenarios that a council faces.

In 2018, many infrastructure strategies were below the quality we hoped to see. Some took a minimalist approach and were essentially only elaborations on the underlying asset management plans.

To be more effective, infrastructure strategies could:

  • provide more information on the condition of critical assets;
  • improve integration and consistency with the financial strategy;
  • enhance the description of levels of service;
  • improve how they address the potential impacts of climate change; and
  • expand to cover all of the council’s asset groups.

In 2021, we will be looking for a greater focus on the high-level challenges facing councils and their communities.

Several councils have indicated that they will extend their infrastructure strategy’s forecast period beyond the 30-year minimum. In our view, a good infrastructure strategy would cover a full renewal cycle.

Infrastructure strategies should be transparent about the nature and extent of any uncertainty in the reliability of underlying asset information and the implications of that uncertainty.

Delivering capital expenditure programmes

The ability of councils to deliver their capital expenditure forecasts is another area that auditors will look at closely in 2021-31 LTP audits. The capital expenditure forecasts produced by a local authority are an assumption of what it can achieve over time. From 2012/13 to 2018/19, councils spent an average of only 77% of their capital expenditure budgets.

The forecast capital expenditure programme should be subject to robust scrutiny as part of preparing the LTP. Under-delivery of capital expenditure budgets can have significant implications for the council and the community. Ratepayers pay for work that is not completed, and levels of service are likely to be below those forecast in the LTP. Under-delivery also increases the risk that the priority assigned to each project is overlooked when determining which are actually undertaken.

The publication, Asset management and long-term planning, on Audit New Zealand’s website, provides useful guidance for you in preparing your infrastructure strategy.

Financial strategies

A financial strategy allows readers of the LTP to assess the prudence of a council’s financial management. The strategy should be clear about the council’s financial goals and trade-offs, presenting these clearly and concisely.
The financial strategy should address longer-term issues beyond the 10 years of the LTP. It should also reflect the effects of significant issues identified in the infrastructure strategy.

We encourage councils to look at how they can improve their financial strategies for 2021-31. A useful goal is to present clear and succinct information that is truly strategic.

Assumptions

The key assumptions we expect to see underpinning all 2021-31 LTPs include:

  • the life cycle of significant assets;
  • sources of funds for replacement of significant assets;
  • the effects of climate change and Covid-19;
  • projected growth;
  • demographic changes; and
  • future price changes (inflation).

These should be complemented by a range of lower-level, activity-specific assumptions.

LTPs should include enough information for readers to understand the full implications and risks around significant assumptions and their potential effects. The LTP should include an estimate where the potential effects of uncertainty are significant.

Performance frameworks and performance measures

A council’s performance framework should identify the community outcomes that it believes will promote the present and future social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of its district or region. It should provide a medium-term, strategically-oriented view of the council’s goals.

The performance framework also sets out the levels of service, performance measures, and targets for each group of activities. This provides the basis for the council’s accountability to its community, for its actual service delivery.

In the groups of activities statements, community outcomes are part of the rationale for the delivery of activities, while the service performance information should reflect what the council contributes towards achieving community outcomes.

A well-designed, cohesive performance framework will show the links between forecast performance information and community outcomes.

Performance measures should focus on key aspects of the services. Councils should not compromise by selecting performance measures that are easily measured but not relevant. All performance measures require robust recording systems, so the council can report actual performance reliably.

Audit and risk committee involvement

In developing their LTP project plans, councils should consider where and how their audit and risk committee can contribute to a more robust process. This should be limited to areas related to the committee’s own role, and should not cross over into reviewing council decisions and priorities.

The specialist skills of external appointees, combined with their separation from the planning process, can add valuable perspectives to the plan and the process.

Project plans and timetables

Preparing LTPs is a large task for councils that requires good project management.

As in previous LTP audit rounds, Audit New Zealand is committed to working with councils to meet their obligations and statutory deadlines. Bear in mind that Covid-19 issues, and compressed time frames from the later-than-usual completion of 2019/20 annual reports, will place additional demands on both councils and auditors.

Where issues arise or councils encounter problems, it is important that they talk to their auditor early.

Audit New Zealand’s approach

Auditing the consultation document involves reporting on:

  • whether it provides an effective basis for public participation in the council’s decisions about the proposed content of its LTP; and
  • whether the underlying information and assumptions are reasonable.

Auditing the LTP involves reporting on whether it provides a reasonable basis for:

  • long-term decision-making and co-ordination of the council’s resources;
  • its accountability to the community.

We also report whether the LTP’s underlying information and assumptions are reasonable.

We are reviewing our audit approach, and will work with councils’ project teams to identify how our LTP audits can run more smoothly for both parties.

For specific guidance and advice, councils can refer to SOLGM’s good practice guides, approach SOLGM directly, or discuss matters with their advisors.

Councils can also refer to the Office of the Auditor-General's two reports on the 2018-28 LTP round:

SOLGM has updated its LTP good practice guides, most of which councils will be familiar with from previous LTPs. The 2021-31 suite of guides comprises:

  • Jigsaw 2021: Piecing it Together;
  • Dollars and Sense 2021: Finance, infrastructure and the LTP;
  • Your Side of the Deal 2021;
  • Telling Our Stories 2021: Guide on Consultation Documents;
  • Living Through the LTP 2021;
  • Navigating the post-lockdown LTP: A practice note; and
  • Climate change in the 2021-31 LTP

These guides can be accessed by councils through the SOLGM website. To access the information in this website visitors will need their council password.

Page last updated: 28 August 2020