July 2020

Tēnā koutou

Apologies for the time it has taken to provide an update on LGNZ's efforts to reinvigorate local democracy.  The Covid 19 lockdown and the work the LGNZ team has been involved in as part of the Covid19 response and recovery programme, has had a rather large impact on the Localism work programme.  The good news is that we have now completed our analysis of the 40 or so submissions received on the discussion paper our report of that consultation will published once we have feedback from LGNZ’s National Council. 

While the world grapples with the pandemic more esoteric subjects, like constitutional reform and the role of local government, are necessarily on the back burner, however, one of the lessons we have learned during this period is the value that can come from effective collaboration between the spheres of government and communities.  This was true during the lockdown and is increasingly true for the recovery where combining of local knowledge and national resources is critical to successs. 

This month’s quote

Both marketism and statism left communities on the sidelines. These are projects that concentrated power rather than sharing it and moved decisions further way from communities rather than close to them. In different ways, they turned people from participants into users; from citizens into clients. The Community Paradigm is a very different proposition. But for community power to be taken seriously and win the argument it needs an intellectual inspiration of its own … for Ostrom, localism is the only real model of democracy (Simon Kay on the legacy of Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize winning economist).

Localism in the regions

The West Coast

Bruce Smith, the Mayor of Westland District, reflecting on the West Coast’s prospects for 2020 made a please for localism and an end to cost shifting when he commented that “as we go into 2020 the West Coast is in good shape. To survive long term we must push for localism. To me it is imperative that decisions are made at a local level on the West Coast and as close as possible to those effected by the decision and not in Wellington. At present unfunded responsibilities from central government end up in local rate increases rather than from New Zealand’s general tax take”. 


The Deputy Mayor of Horowhenua District, Jo Mason, reflecting on prospects for the new year, wrote in the Horowhenua Chronicle that “this term will be busy as we work with the opportunities and challenges the district’s growth creates. As our district grows it’s important that we keep our sense of localism — knowing our neighbours and what makes this a great place to live and work.” Ms Mason used the rest of her article to highlight examples of community activities that were taking place within the district.


Neil Holden, Mayor of New Plymouth District, shared his view of local government in 2050 by painting a picture that of Taranaki with a single local authority and significantly enhanced powers which would involve “a greatly enhanced mandate receiving a share of regionally generated GST, income tax and Crown Mineral Royalties and tasked by its people with delivering a range of high-quality services, some of which were previously managed centrally, including management of the State Highway network and co management of the Conservation estate and the coast with Tangata Whenua.” 

Localism around the world

Re-municipalisation – the new buzz word

Given the New Zealand Government’s recent funding package to upgrade drinking, waste and storm water, conditional on agreement by each council to look at the feasibility of shifting their three water services into large publicly owned water providers, it is interesting to note the pace at which the re-municipalisation of water services is occurring in Europe at the moment.

Re-municipalisation is the name given to transferring public services back into the direct control of local municipalities and generally applies to activities that had previously been sold or contracted out to the private sector, such as social housing, recreational facilities, broadband networks, education, waste and water.  A report from the Transnational Institute (https://www.tni.org/files/publication-downloads/futureispublic_online_def.pdf) shows that since 2000 there have been at least 1400 cases in 58 countries, 110 of which involve re-municipalisation of water services in France.

The arguments for re-municipalisation are often about the of formerly privatised services and a view that profit taking has come before investment, however, they also highlight a desire to provide for more direct citizen and public involvement in the running of local water services and co-production with communities.  

New resource: the Final Report of the Newham Democracy and Civic Participation Commission


The Commission was asked to review the governance model of Newham London Borough and look at options for increasing opportunities for local residents to be more involved.  It final report (all 122  pages), released in early July make a number of radical recommendations for increasing the opportunities for local citizens to be significantly more involved in the operation of the council.  Suggestions included the establishment of a permanent deliberative assembly of local residents to initiate policy agendas and make recommendations for policy change; more emphasis on neighbourhood governance through participatory budgeting and establishment of a trial parish or community council; and the creation of a citizens’ assembly to meet twice a year to deliberate on matters of significance.  The report can be downloaded here.

The Newham Democracy and Civic Participation Commission – summary of their final report

The beginning of July saw the publication of a report designed to strengthen democracy and participation in the London Borough of Newham that has relevance to all councils and communities, regardless of the country they are in.  The report of the Newham Democracy and Civic Participation Commission (122 pages) provides a blue print for revitalising local democracy that could be applied, noting different legislative contexts, in any community.  The scope of the Commission’s deliberations is reflected in the chapter headings, which are all topics that councils in New Zealand wrestle with, or should be wrestling with, on a regular basis. 

The Commission was established in 2019 with two main tasks:

  • To examine both the council’s current directly elected mayor system of governance and the alternative approaches that exist in England;
  • To explore ways in which local residents could have opportunities to be more engaged and involved in local decision-making and the Council’s work.

The major questions addressed in the report are summarised below.

Mayor’s role

On the question of the mayor’s role the Commission considered whether having an executive mayor added value to the borough and concluded that the clear accountability of decision-making and the stability that resulted from the executive mayoral model justified its continuation.  However they did recommend a number of checks and balances on the power of the mayor, these included:

  • A two term limit
  • A permanent “deliberative assembly of local residents to initiate policy agendas and make recommendations for policy change”;
  • A more participatory system of governance that would give councillors and local residents to engage in setting agendas, shaping policy and making decisions.

Underpinning these changes they were looking for a stronger local media and revitalised role for elected councillors.

These recommendations are highly relevant to New Zealand. Although we don’t have an executive mayoral model it is common for councillors to feel excluded from the agenda-setting process and limited as far as their ability to recommend policies.  LGNZ’s surveys of elected members also show that they want a higher level of engagement with communities, Iwi/Māori and business organisations than currently occurs.  Paradoxically the framework providing for a responsive local democracy in New Zealand appears to be far from conducive to that outcome.

Neighbourhood governance

The chapter on area and neighbourhood governance has important lessons for New Zealand’s council.  The Commission defines area or neighbourhood governance as “the way in which smaller areas and localities within the borough have the power and freedom to decide things for themselves and to spend money to resolve local issues”.

While describing potential structures (community boards are a New Zealand example) the Report recommends a flexible approach to enable areas to choose to draw down different amounts of power than their neighbours – whether this is street by street or consolidated by local agreement.  A key recommendation is that Newham carry out a “borough-wide community governance” review to create a framework to allow area working to flourish.  In addition the Commission recommends that:

  • The Borough extend participatory budgeting and increases the resources allocated to neighbourhoods to spend through participatory means;
  • That area-based participatory decision-making be aligned with the annual budget cycle;
  • That the council identify and area to trial an urban parish or community council

Participative and deliberative democracy

The Commission gives substantial emphasis to councils as “democratic institutions” and on that basis make a number of recommendations designed to improve dialogue and participation. The Commission suggests that the Borough develop a framework for citizen participation that sets out what stakeholders will contribute, the objectives and limitations of public participation and core underpinning principles – a “statement of citizen participation”. 

A practical tool discussed by the Commission is a Citizens’ Commission which can be established for specific issues, such as developing a response to climate change (which Newham had previously used) or established on a permanent basis.  Citizens’ Assemblies have the potential to engage with the necessary trade-offs required when making significant decisions.  The Commission recommends that a Citizens Assembly is established to meet twice a year to encourage wider debate on matters of community concern.

Co-production and community empowerment

Co-production refers to local citizens working with public bodies to design services and is an area that the Commission believes, following submissions from local people, needs to be better integrated in the public value process.  Co-production initiatives must also occur with realistic expectations that take into account the capacity of local organisations. Specific recommendations included:

  • That Newham evaluate its co-production efforts with local people themselves;
  • That as part of its community asset mapping the council consider how existing knowledge and skill can be pooled;
  • That the council better understand the community and voluntary sector’s need for infrastructure support and that a central unit is established to disseminate information for co-production and community engagement.

Local Democracy and Political Inequality

Noting that young people and those form the lowest income background are less likely to register and vote the Commission made a number of suggestions to improve turnout including the establishment of a task force to identify those who are excluded or other not engaged in formal representative democracy and set a targeted approach to civic education on local democracy.  To address the decline of local media it recommended that the Borough undertake the creation of a “cooperative citizens’ media organisation that would be funded through its start-up phase through an endowment.

The Role of Local Councillor

One of the features of local reform over recent decades has been a gradual marginalisation of councillors as governments have sought to make councils work more like board than public organisations.  Councillors themselves are asking for a greater involvement in community leadership and decision-making.

The Commission argues for the creation of “an overarching narrative on councillors’ roles” particularly in oversight, direction setting and representing community views”.  Pleasingly it also notes that for councillors to exercise these roles then a commitment to training and development is essential. Suggestions are:

  • The development of a borough-wide policy covering the individual and collective roles of councillors
  • Influencing, scrutinising and challenging the Council and other partners;
  • New arrangement for locality and area working
  • More active use of the “co-option scheme” to draw individuals with a wider range of perspectives onto formal committees.

The full report can be downloaded here.