The way in which societies determine how public services are provided, whether they are the responsibility of national governments, sub-national governments, communities themselves, or the private sector, varies from place to place and over time. It is a dynamic space influenced by community values, technology and local circumstances. This is particularly true for the role of local government.
The history of government in New Zealand is one characterised by considerable movement of roles and responsibilities between two orders of government, both ways. For example, responsibility for fire safety has gradually shifted from a local responsibility to a national one while responsibility for the location of brothels, class four gaming machines and decisions about trading on Easter Sunday have shifted from being a matter of national concern to a local one. Often the trigger for change is new technology that allows for centralisation or decentralisation of services, new challenges, such as climate change, and changing values, such as the greater importance that current generations give to fresh water quality compared to their predecessors.
Ensuring public policies and public services are responsive and effective is a core responsibility of government, at all levels.
Given the almost unarguable case for more community power, the question might be why, under successive governments, it has made such little progress. My personal view is that this country suffers from a deep-rooted centralised governance style that permeates the way it is run at every level. So local councillors are sometimes reluctant to share power with communities because they themselves feel powerless and frustrated by an over-dominant Westminster and Whitehall.
Paradoxically, or perhaps not, this centralisation has not brought equality. We are one of the most spatially unequal countries in the developed world. (Lord Bob Kerslake, Chair, Going Local, UK)
Government officials are currently working on the reform of two major policy areas, water services and resource management. Both are likely to have a significant impact on the role of local government and, depending upon the final design of both, have implications for localism and community empowerment.
Water reform is most advanced, with the shape of the new model expected to be known later this year. Early indications are that the model will involve a small number of large publicly owned corporations with responsibility for not only managing drinking and waste-water networks but potentially owning them. Shifting responsibility from the direct control of local councils, and aggregation, constrains the ability of communities to exercise both voice and exit (exit reflects the ability of households to shift to a different district with a different water supplier) with regard to the nature of their local water services.
In addition to consolidating water and waste-water services (and possibly storm water), on February 10 this year the Minister for the Environment announces the Government’s decision to replace the Resource Management Act 1991. The details of the three statutes that will replace it are yet to fully emerge but we expect them to be strongly influenced by the findings of the Randerson Commission’s review of the RMA 1991, which proposes to shift decision-making about town and city form from local residents to, as currently recommended, a regional panel of appointed officials.
Both reform initiatives, if implemented in accordance with initial indications, will appear to fly in the face of localism and the principle of subsidiarity by excluding local people from a direct say in matters that they are likely to have an intense interest in, and about which they are the most knowledgeable.
From a localist perspective the critical question to determine where decision-making rights should lie. Should they lie with citizens and communities that understand the issues and experience directly the consequences of those decisions, or should they be placed with decision-makers that are neither as proximate nor informed. A second critical question is how national interests, should they exist, are taken into account by local decision-makers. It is a case of finding the “sweet spots” that recognises community empowerment as a valid objective, supports local innovation and the benefit from local knowledge and information while also acknowledging national interests. Such interests might range from wanting more land for housing, to having more equitable access to drinking water. Institutional design that excludes citizens from the active participation in the decisions that directly affect their communities is not only bad for our democracy but unsustainable.
Communities’ desires for agency cannot be ignored, a point strongly made by Elinor Ostrom, in a new report profiled below. Elinor Ostrom is recognised for her work on the value of empowerment and the process of self-governance. In particular:
- that communities can manage their own resources outside government or market intervention;
- that democracy is more meaningful at a local level;
- that legitimacy and social trust flourish when communities have influence over the things that affect their lives; and
- that “one size fits all” solutions do not work in complex systems like modern societies.
Ostrom recommended shifting as many public decisions as practicable to a community level in order to enable the active participation of those affected in the decision-making process. She also advocated for changes to state culture; from being controlling and hierarchical to facilitative and enabling. The relevance to New Zealand is striking.
Nation states are unlikely to collapse overnight. There are no barbarians at the gate … But it evolved during a time of industrialisation, centralised ‘command and control’ bureaucracies, and national loyalty. Modern technology tends in the opposite direction; it’s distributed, decentralised and uncontrollable.
If our political arrangements are a mirror of the modes of production and assumptions of the time, the future doesn’t look rosy for this 19th Century relic.
It looks far brighter for the modern connected, agile city, whether that’s on land, on borders, or out in the ocean. And anyway, doesn’t it pay to have some experiments going on just in case? (Return of the City State, Jamie Bartlett, Aeon 2017).
From the beginning of settlement decisions about the shape of the places in which we live, pre and post colonisation, have been made at the sub-national level, either by whanau/hapu or municipalities, communities and provinces. The logic is rather strong; because local residents are directly affected by the shape and design of their towns, directs and regions they are motivated to make decisions that will protect and strengthen the quality of life that comes from living, playing and working in those environs. It is also clear who to hold to account should decisions not improve quality of life, with elections providing the mechanisms to ensure accountability.