January 2020

Ngā mihi o te tau hou, happy new year.  Thank you to all of you who have made submissions on our discussion paper “Reinvigorating Democracy: the case for localising power and decision-making to councils and communities.  We are still collating the submissions received so far and expect to be working on them to at least the end of January, so if you get your submission to us before then it will definitely be considered.  Current plans are to release the final report on Reinvigorating Democracy on the evening of 5 March.

International News

Local democracy and associated issues like decentralisation, localisation and autonomy are frequently in the international news.  A few recent items are shared below.


Recommendation to localise parts of the UK rail network

Concerned about the performance of the rail services in the United Kingdom a transport charity has called for city authorities to have more control over the management of regional networks.  A new report from the Campaign for Better Transport argues for a new national rail policy including the replacement of the franchise system with a flexible outcome-based one which allows competitive intercity services, concessions for commuter areas, and specialist agreements for areas seeing significant change and investment.

Included in the recommendations is a call for the devolution of procurement and oversight of services, with the management of regional networks devolved to city authorities and sub-regional transport bodies. It argues that these are better placed to oversee services and are more able to integrate the railway with wider local transport networks. The report can be found here.


Call for councils to play a bigger role in social policy in Tasmania

Shortly before Christmas the Tasmanian Labour Party local government spokeswoman, Anita Dow, said there was opportunity for targeted investment to allow local government to play a bigger role in areas such as employment, education and preventative health.

She noted that a number of Tasmanian councils were already successfully involved in local employment programs and some preventative health activities with Burnie City Council being a good example.  Burnie City provides employment and education programs to its communities. 

Localism is not a new idea

The former Member of Parliament, Nandor Tanchos, called for a “radical localism” noting that “because power is seen as flowing down from her Majesty, rather than originating in the people and flowing up to Parliament, local bodies provide no constitutional constraint on the Government” (Waikato Times p. 6 6/8/2010).


Local democracy under fire in Florida

The United States of America is often regarded as one of the world’s most localised nations, with more than 95,000 different types of local authorities, and so citizens have a say on a substantial range of issues.  What is often not known is that local governments themselves have little if any constitutional protection and are creatures of their respective state governments.  State governments are not always supportive of the decisions their council make, for example a recent case of Florida.

A report from Integrity Florida details how the state government has used it powers of pre-emption to block local elected officials from taking action on matters of concern to local citizens, going so far as to fine, suspend and even remove from office councillors that consider and vote on matters subject to a pre-emptions.

Local governments are the labs of democracy; this is where we are supposed to be innovative and forward thinking, the state legislature should not prevent local governments from carrying out this mandate (Joshua Simmons, City Commissioner Coral Springs).

Pre-emption is a legal doctrine that empowers the state to over-ride local government when they differ.  Designed to ensure there were no inconsistencies between local and state laws, state governments, like Florida, have adopted what are known as “punitive pre-emption” powers to not only block but punish councillors who vote for matters subject to pre-emption.  Such matters include:

  • Firearms regulation;
  • Smokefree regulations;
  • Banning polystyrene and plastic bags;
  • Pest control;
  • Local signage;
  • Affordable housing e.g. inclusionary zoning; and
  • The minimum wage.

The report “Pre-emption Strategy: the attack on home rule in Florida”, can be found here.

Communities call for more democracy in West Yorkshire

It was in the centralised environment of the United Kingdom that “new localism” became a catch cry of reformers of both the right and left and a challenge to centralist orthodoxy that dominated politics at the time, as it still does in New Zealand.  Yet, despite winning a few battles, such as city deals, the war is far from won.  In many parts of the country citizens are still seeking a meaningful say in how their areas are governed and how the country is run.

A group of citizens in West Yorkshire (the towns and cities of Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Leeds, Wakefield and surrounding areas in the north of England) have initiated a campaign to address the fact that inhabitants of the area have “far less collective political authority over, and responsibility for, their common well-being and the place where they live and work than they would have in any other European country”.

A forum is planned for the end of January to promote ideas, inspiration and tools for citizens to create a flourishing West Yorkshire from the ground up.  The organisers see the challenge of creating a flourishing, self-sustaining West Yorkshire as needing to answer two key questions:

  • What should we do, and do better, in our region? That activity might be in any field, including the climate emergency, transport, racial justice, economic democracy, education and skills, sport, democracy and governance, the arts and more.
  • How can we actively shift the balance of England away from the “bankers' capitalism” of central London and the Home Counties.

The organisers clearly don’t see a conflict between politics and fun as the symposium will include an after-party performance by experimental music collective Katz Mulk.

What submitters are saying

We have been very impressed by many of the submissions received on the Reinvigorating Democracy discussion paper.  Here are a few contributions:

  • John Clements shared a statement from JS Mill that sums up the case for localising decision-making, namely: “The very object of having a local representation is in order that those who have an interest in common, which they do not share with the general body of their countrymen, may manage that joint interest by themselves.”
  • The New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women drew on the work of Melanie Dare, an academic at Canberra University, in stating that is a growing need to develop and implement new forms of governance that respond to the increasing complexity of decision-making and balance the roles of government and local citizens: “In the last few years, localism is (re)emerging as an alternative to traditional 'top-down' governance strategies which are criticised for their failure to adequately respond to the diversity of community needs.”
  • D Stubbs had concerns that “devolution of power and authority has often resulted over time in more, not less, central control. Or alternatively, central government grabbing back control. Also there is a tendency for funding which may be adequate to begin with, diminishing over time.”  He identified school boards of trustees as an example.
  • In his submission Richard Northey highlighted the need to amend the New Zealand Constitution Act to provide new sections on local government setting out its purpose, its minimum roles, its right to raise funds from property taxes, the costs of services and infrastructure, and its right to act and raise resources on behalf of its communities to enhance the well-being of its communities.
  • Hāpai Te Hauora noted that councils currently lack the power to effectively address alcohol related harm in their communities and highlighted Whānau Ora as a practicable model of localism, one that joined the siloes and took a place based approach to service delivery.
  • Paul Spence saw lots of promise in the idea of localism but argued that it needed to be reframed as an “equity driven” project to make it more palatable to central government and the electorate.  Amongst his recommendations he suggested more of a focus on how localism reserves social services and enhances resilience and incentivising regional economic development through a hybrid approach to tax collection and redistribution.

New publications

Since the last newsletter we’ve come across a few reports that reinforce the importance of bringing government and decision-making closer to people and provide guidance on doing so.


New report on engaging with communities

The Helen Clark Foundation has recently published a report that reinforces the underpinning message of the localism project, deepening engagement with communities.  The report “Engaged communities: how community-led development can increase civic participation”, describes the critical role that informed and engaged communities play in a healthy democratic society and argues that fostering engaged communities should be a priority for councils. 

The authors, Amanda Reid and Hillmare Schulze, argue that councils need to commit to fostering “genuinely engaged communities” in order to build trust and co-operation and improve the lives of the people they represent. The report provides advice on how to engage with the three different types of community; communities of place, of interest and of identity and offers a number of case studies highlighting successful practice as well as principles to guide councils seeking to strengthen community engagement in their respective rohē. 

One of the report’s recommendations highlights the value of providing space and resources for community-led development.  This involves building on what the community already has and being enablers “to support, connect, advise, guide, resource, inform and leverage”.  Councils providing such spaces and resources is recommended as necessary to shift the focus from consuming services to one of co-creating solutions, a process that sees the local authority taking on an enabling role.  The report can be accessed at the Helen Clark Foundation website.


Making Decentralisation Work: a handbook for Policy Makers

Published by the OECD in 2019, Making Decentralisation Work is a comprehensive guide for policy makers on how to decentralise based on the experience of OECD countries and others. 

Explained as one of the most important reforms of the last 50 years, the report argues that the question should not be whether decentralisation is good or bad in itself, but that decentralisation outcomes – in terms of democracy, efficiency, accountability, regional and local development – depend greatly on the way decentralisation is designed and implemented.

Empirical research and a number of country examples show that decentralisation can be conducive to public sector efficiency, democratisation and political stability. There are also examples of failures with decentralisation, when the reforms were not properly designed and implemented, and where the multi-faceted dimension of the process was not well understood.

The report is the most recent title in the OECD’s Multi Level Governance series, and can be purchased at the OECD online library.


Localism in practice

Localism is a broad church.  It embodies institutional arrangements that include the devolution of public services (and funding) from central to local government, the empowerment of communities to make decisions about neighbourhood matters and initiatives that ensure public spending priorities reflect locally determined priorities. 

What they have in common is a commitment to ensuring that decision-making is brought as close as practically possible to the communities affected by those decisions and that public services achieve their objectives as efficiently and effectively as possible.  Such models, although not widely adopted, can already be found in New Zealand and promoting the value of these initiatives is an important part of LGNZ’s localism initiative.  One practical example is the Chatham Islands Investment Strategy, a real example of place-based governance.


The Chatham Islands Investment Strategy

In an effort to achieve shared agreement on future priorities, the key Chatham Islands’ representative organisations and a range of government departments came together to agree a roadmap for the economic and social advancement of the people of the Chatham Islands. 

The strategy features an agreed vision, outcomes (sought by 2023) and multi-agency action plans and involves Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust; Hokotehi Moriori Trust; Chatham Islands Council and the Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust.  It is an umbrella body able to co-ordinate and align investment in accordance with the agree vision and outcomes. In addition to the core members partnership agreement have been negotiated with the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE), Ministry of Transport, Department of Internal Affairs, Department of Conservation, the Ministry for the Environment, the Ministry for Housing and Urban Development and the Ministry of Education.