‘Localism’ and support for ‘Kiwi community power’

A joint Local Government New Zealand/New Zealand Initiative conference will be held in Wellington today to explore the results of a survey that indicates the majority of those surveyed support a move towards local services being managed and provided by local decision-makers.

From NZ Initiative:

With New Zealanders’ attitudes towards devolved government shifting, many believe now is the time to explore localism.

The majority of New Zealanders believe that:

  • Locally controlled services will be more responsive to local needs (54%)
  • Local government would be more accountable to the locals they live amongst (53%), and
  • Local people would make better decisions based on greater understanding of local needs (52%)

At the top of the list of supported services that should be controlled by local decision-makers was vocational training (52%). This finding will be of interest in the context of the Government’s proposed merger of existing polytechs into a single national body.

At today’s LGNZ/Initiative Localism Symposium, over 130 delegates will hear from local government, business and private sector leaders about how much better New Zealand’s government could be by adopting devolution.

Dr Oliver Hartwich, Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative, will launch #localismNZ: Bringing power to the people.

This new primer on localism explains the rationale behind localism and responds to commonly heard objections.

He will explain how unusual New Zealand’s centralism is when compared internationally. New Zealand’s councils have limited fiscal autonomy. Their mandate is also much more restricted than local government in other parts of the world.

Number of local government bodies:

  • New Zealand 78 (average size 68,970)
  • Australia 571 (average size 42,026)
  • Switzerland 2,281 (average size 3,673)
  • Spain 8,192 (average size 5,714)
  • Germany 11.473 (average size 7,389)
  • France 35,535 (average size 1,872)

“Now is the time to bring the power and decision-making back to a local level,” says Dr Hartwich. “As more people recognise the absurdities of our centralised system of government and become more curious about the localist alternative, we need to build on this momentum.”

Local Government New Zealand President Dave Cull believes that communities need to be empowered to make decisions that support their local advantages, rather than having flat, top-down rules imposed upon them.

“In many instances, local people are in the best position to make decisions for their communities, not Wellington. For example, having polytechs create pathways to grow local industries, rather than shutting them down and sending our school leavers to the main centres.”

“The current governance and funding methods for local government are backwards – we need to be incentivising healthy competition between regions and sustainable growth, rather than stifling, and in many cases draining our regions of resources.”

The survey only has small majorities supporting more ‘localism’.


Do you give a toss that local government is broken?

Jason Krupp writes at The Spinoff: Local government in NZ is broken and dying – and hardly anyone gives a toss

Local government in Zealand is broken and dying, only it is dying so slowly that you’d hardly notice it unless you are looking, and it is a problem.

How broken is it? Do you give a toss?

Krupp cites two reasons why he thinks it is broken.

The first is that the system has been designed to blunt the power of the local ballot box. Unlike national elections, where election promises translate into political mandates, at the local level they carry much less weight. That’s because under the Local Government Act, a mayor’s powers are largely limited to leading the long-term and annual planning process.

Very often newly elected mayors and councillors have to live with the existing plan until the next planning review cycle, which in some cases can take up to 18 months.

Rather than sit on their hands for 18 months after this year’s elections perhaps this is why a number of councils set about debating and voting on lobbying Parliament on deep sea drilling – a pointless waste of time but something to make them feel important about.

The second factor that dilutes local democratic choice is the work load central government places on local government. This is something not many people are aware of.

As creatures of statute, councils are entirely answerable to central government. With the stroke of a pen, parliament can hand tasks to local government, set service standards, and dictate local operations. Councils are obliged to accept these responsibilities, or be replaced by statutory managers. And central government does kind of task shifting all the time. At last count there are more than 30 pieces of legislation that conferred responsibility to local government – and that excludes the Local Government Act.

But while central government is happy to pass on tasks, it is much less forthcoming with funding.

With rates rising far faster than inflation it’s kind of obvious who ends up funding all the bureaucratic obligations.

These factors conspire to create not just a democratic gap but an accountability gap too. Ratepayers and residents are effectively locked out of the running of their community, and they are unable to tell which tier of government is responsible for which service. All they do know is the one way direction of their rates bills: upward.

Some ratepayers and residents aren’t locked out, they actively lobby on things like anti-fossil fuel policies that either push or enable (I think some councillors are involved in this activism) that ends up costing ratepayers more.

Then it becomes obvious where Krupp is coming from – he’s a lobbyist.

At the NZ Initiative we have proposed a different solution in the report The Local Manifesto: Restoring Local Government Accountability.

We want to make councils ultimately responsible for all local matters by amending the Local Government Act in a way that strictly sets out which tasks and services local government is solely responsible for. That way when rates shoot up, ratepayers know who ask tough question of. You can’t pass the buck when there is no one to pass it to.

The flip side of this is that it frees central government to focus on national level matters. As it stands, no matter is too small or local that central government won’t get involved. Take the review of dog control rules currently being conducted by Associate Local Government Minister Louise Upston. Or Local Government Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga’s review of campervan bylaws.

These are both classic examples of one-size-fits-all thinking. It ignores local differences and allows councils to shift the blame for their poor performance onto central government. If central government wants to encourage local responsibility, it needs to stop behaving like an overbearing helicopter parent.

There is of course a case to be made that there may be some instances where it is advantageous for central government setting policy at a local level. But if it does so, it must bear the costs of this intervention, or give communities the opportunity to opt out. Central government’s regulatory free lunch, where it gets to pass policy free of charge, has to end.

A key feature of successful local government structures overseas is financial incentives. We need to introduce these in New Zealand. If central government wants to encourage councils to do the right thing, such as pursue faster economic growth or free land for housing, it needs to introduce financial rewards for doing so. It cannot hog all the benefits and pass on all the costs.

Imagine how local government and the public’s attitude to releasing land for housing would change if the government paid councils a grant for every new house built within a limited timeframe. Or to what degree local red tape would be slashed if councils got a slice of the goods and services tax on any additional economic growth they helped encourage?

There is a caveat though. If this weighty responsibility is to be handed to local government, councils need to prove they can handle it. They need to demonstrate that they can be trusted as wise spenders of public money. Right now the cost benefit analysis on long-term plans amounts to little more than a list of pros and cons. Councillors wishing decisions to fall one way or the other just need to make sure the respective pro/con column is longer. This is the kind of thinking that results in Blenheim’s white elephant theatre.

Councils also need to show that their actions are steered by the will of the community.

Mechanisms like non-binding local referenda and community juries can be an effective means of securing buy-in on long-term plans. Another upside from this is that it confronts communities with the costs of their decisions. Yes, you can have gold plated sewer pipes, but you have to pay for it.

If this sounds like an odd set up, it is probably worth noting local government in New Zealand is really the oddity. Most Western countries have devolved decision-making down to the local level to a far greater degree than New Zealand. Even in highly centralised countries like the United Kingdom, powers that were once vested in Whitehall are being handed back to local authorities as part of the city deal process.

Ultimately, if we want local government to be open, accountable and democratic – something not found in the current system – then we need to reform the laws that govern the sector. It is almost a no-brainer. We trust voters to make wise decisions at the ballot box, why not entrust them to run their own communities?

But will anything change? Do you care if it does or doesn’t?

The NZ Initiative may need to get some supportive councillors elected then rally  a handful of people to promote policies and stack submissions so that the councils can claim to be following the will of the people (the small number who take part).

Mentioning things like cycling is good, recycling is better and oil is bad will help if they want to influence existing councils.