Newcastle blueprint

2013-11-12 00:00

THERE is much more to the success of Newcastle than its string of recent awards and its budget health.

When The Witness attended a council meeting in this industrial town last week, there was a spirit of excitement, pride and unity seen almost nowhere else in municipal KwaZulu-Natal.

Councillors with the ruling ANC chatted and chuckled with rivals from the DA and NFP — and jostled to show off the lunch boxes they’d brought from home.

Yesterday, The Witness revealed how this council has banned perks and wasteful costs for itself, including no more publicly funded catering at meetings, and no paper agendas. According to its mayor, Afzul Rehman, its initial budget reform blitz saved one eighth of its entire operational budget, with sensible cuts to everything from needless tractor repair to unnecessary courier fees.

The cuts allowed the town to boost its infrastructure budget from R68 million to R172 million in a single month.

And they were identified in two-day annual examinations of all 5 000 cost items in Newcastle’s budget. Rather than indulge in three days of rhetoric, self-congratulation and excess at annual municipal bosberaads, this town has a self-imposed rule that the bulk of its yearly planning sessions is devoted to weeding out unnecessary expenses.

Meanwhile, the town’s public servants, of all people, show similar innovation. If there were any doubts about Newcastle’s commitment to its vulnerable Taiwanese and Chinese textiles factories, which employ some 7 000 people, the business cards used by the municipality’s economic-development director, Ferdi Alberts, should put them to rest. The cards are printed in Chinese on the reverse side, and Alberts makes house calls to Chinese businesspeople for issues as minor as barking dogs.

Now, councillors from all parties are openly proud of the town’s status as the only one in the province to cancel free lunches, and there is a competition between the parties to see who can save the most. By stunning contrast, the finances of most other municipalities in the province are in disarray; a situation fuelled by wasteful spending.

The auditor general’s report for 2011/2012 lamented a “regression” in the state of municipal finances across KwaZulu-Natal, and six district municipalities remain under administration.

And where fiscal mismanagement has not crippled towns on its own, political infighting has often finished the job.

In Newcastle’s neighbouring town of Dundee, a municipal manager delegated by the province to “intervene” in the town’s deteriorating affairs was allegedly “run out of town” by councillors. And in Vryheid, political infighting has led to the Department of Co-Operative Governance being forced to take over entirely.

Different towns, of course, face different challenges, but common sense demands that successful strategies to similar problems be replicated in times of crisis. Just a few years after New York City implemented its “broken windows” crime-fighting strategy in the early nineties, crime rates in the Big Apple fell across the board. The U.S. city of Albuquerque then tried the same theory — in which a campaign against visible petty crime is supposed to have an effect on violent crime — and saw its own rates of serious crime tumble. Cape Town copied the approach, and has slashed its downtown crime in recent years.

What is so encouraging about Newcastle is that, while the mayor and his executive committee have stuck to noble ANC goals for service delivery, “which is to improve people’s lives”, they have looked outside of political ideology to achieve them. They have consulted business leaders, ratepayers, common sense, and, yes, even rival parties.

In 2009, Newcastle needed investment, a reformed budget, infrastructure, and stability restored to its politics and textiles industry. Its townships needed tarred roads, a hospital and a bridge to connect it directly to the town. The city has met these needs, and many others, without any borrowing, and with reasonable rates increases of seven percent.

Asked by The Witness why Newcastle’s model of cutting costs and boosting infrastructure is not being replicated by struggling towns, a spokesperson for the Department of Co-Operative Governance said an “audit is under way” to determine which council is most efficient in limiting operational spending. One fears that the audit, when eventually completed, will be reproduced in massive paper binders, and couriered around the province, at huge cost to taxpayers, rather than following Newcastle’s example of simply using e-mail. Instead, the MEC should direct mayors, particularly, those presiding over dysfunctional municipalities, to replicate immediately the example of KwaZulu-Natal’s standout success story. And, indeed, challenge them to do better: even Newcastle recorded R15 million in wasteful spending last year.

But perhaps even more significant is the blueprint Newcastle has provided for teamwork between rival parties in coming up with ideas and implementing them. Imagine another government in KwaZulu-Natal in which an opposition leader’s chief swipe at the ANC mayor is no more divisive than this one, provided by DA councillor Thomas Hadebe: “Newcastle is successful mostly because the mayor listens to us in the DA”.

• Rowan Philp is chief reporter at The Witness.

• rowan.philp@witness.co.za

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