March 2021

Tēnā koutou everyone

Welcome to our first Localism update for 2021.  In this update we reflect on how LGNZ has drawn on the findings from the Localism Consultation and subsequent report; look at forthcoming policy and legislative changes and their significance for the implementation of a localism agenda, and briefly profile a number of recent publications and reports on the subject.

In this edition:

  • Localism and LGNZ’s work programme;
  • Change on the horizon: The impact of central reforms on New Zealand;
  • New international reports on Localism:
    • Power down to level up: resilient place-shaping for a post-Covid age;
    • Think big, act small: Elinor Ostrom’s radical vision for community power;
    • Strong Suburbs: Enabling streets to control their own development; and
    • Community Power: the evidence;
  • What will Joe Biden mean for local government in the US?;
  • What’s happening to local democracy in Scotland’s devolved administration?;
  • MTFJ shows the benefit of partnering with local government; and
  • Recent webinars and podcasts of interest.

Localism and LGNZ’s work programme

We’ve recently received a number of queries asking ‘what next’ for the localism project and discussion document, “Reinvigorating local democracy: the case for localising power and decision-making to councils and communities”, as summarised in the report, “Enhancing Democratic Well-being”.  These findings, summarised below, are being incorporated in LGNZ’s advocacy and work programme to help develop policy positions and argue for change.  To remind readers, key findings included:

  • When local government undertakes meaningful engagement with its communities, invests in local and neighbourhood governance and works with communities to co-produce and co-design local services, not only are local outcomes are improved, but democratic well-being is also enhanced;
  • Being strongly engaged with their communities puts councils in a strong positon to work with government agencies to ensure that public services in their rohē not only address local priorities but are provided in a manner that is culturally appropriate;
  • Where it can be shown that community well-being will be improved by the local provision of a service currently being delivered by central government, governments should adopt the “city deal” approach to enable the transfer of that service tot eh appropriate council(s);
  • That a localist approach to the provision of public services creates new opportunities to give effect to the partnership implicit in Te Tiriti ō Waitangi, particularly opportunities for co-governance and co-production with Iwi/Māori;
  • Any devolution, or transfer of roles and responsibilities, should be contingent on councils being able to show that they are performing existing services well and that accountability and transparency frameworks allow citizens to effectively scrutinise performance;
  • That councils must “walk the talk” and actively seek to engage with their communities including options for strengthening neighbourhood governance and the further establishment of sub-municipal institutions like community and local boards.


For my part I cannot conceive that a nation can live, much less prosper, without a high degree of centralisation of government. But I think that administrative centralisation only serves to enervate the peoples that submit to it, because it constantly tends to diminish their civic spirit (Tocqueville, 1838).

Change on the horizon

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)

Current reforms

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.


Recent reports

The last few months of 2020 and first months of 2021 saw the publication of a suite of interesting and useful reports highlighting the value of more citizen-centred and localised forms of public governing and decision-making.  Some of the more interesting ones are described below.

Power down to level up: resilient place-shaping for a post-Covid age (LGIU)

Power down to level up, is the latest report from the LGIU (the Local Government Information Unit), a long standing UK thinktank.   The report provides a very timely articulation of the importance of “place” in public policy and to well-being in particular.  Not only is it timely for the United Kingdom, which the authors note is entering a period of further centralisation which risks smothering local leadership, but also for New Zealand, which is facing similar issues. 

The report tracks the history of “place shaping” since Sir Michael Lyons added the phrase to our lexicon in 2006 and offers a range of case studies that highlight the benefits of taking a placed based and localised approach to solving public policy issues.  Amongst their recommendations to “promote empowered and resilient places throughout England” are to:

  • Build thriving neighbourhoods;
  • Develop citizen centred public services;
  • Promote a sustainable local economy; and
  • Strengthen local public health.

In their own words “place-orientated strategies will need to span whole cities and towns … Yet what makes the greatest differences to citizens is improving the quality of the environment, giving them a say in the decisions that affect them”.  Written by Dr Andrew Walker, (LGIU) and Dr Patrick Diamond, Queen Mary University of London, the report can be downloaded here.

Think big, act small: Elinor Ostrom’s radical vision for community power (New Local)

One of the most exciting of the new crop of localist orientated publications is a paper about Elinor Ostrom, published by New Local, formerly the New Local government Network, a British thinktank.  Written by Dr Simon Kaye, the paper introduces the work of Elinor Ostrom, who received the Nobel Prize of Economics in 2009 for her work highlighting the latent power existing in communities to solve their own problems.  She is well known for showing that people’s motivation and ability to cooperate, participate and sustainably control their own resources are greater than usually assumed.

An important observation is the way in which democratic systems that neglect local-scale governance have the effect of dis-incentivising civic engagement and unravelling the social fabric of real communities (Ostrom).

Amongst her findings that are particularly relevant to local government are the observations that the larger scale of democracy the harder it becomes for people to participate meaningfully and that democratic systems that neglect local-scale governance tend to dis-incentivise civic engagement, unravelling the social fabric of communities.  In response to the commonly expressed view that the complexity of modern society requires that governance be given to “experts”, she responds that citizens are experts of another kind; they have knowledge about their everyday lives, the things they need, the concerns of their families and neighbours and the persistent problems that are distinct to the places in which they live.  The report can be accessed here.

Strong Suburbs: Enabling streets to control their own development (Policy Exchange)

In contrast to the recommendations of the Randerson Report, “New Direction for Resource Management”, which propose removing district and city planning from communities and placing it with regionally based committees consisting of appointed “experts”, a new report from the United Kingdom argues the opposite. 

Published by the Policy Exchange and written by Dr Samuel Hughes and Ben Southwood, Strong Suburbs argues the case for giving local residents the power to set their own local development rules at a street level, and to share the wealth created by any new housing.  The report suggests that residents should be able to vote on rules for designs that would help foster ‘gentle intensification’ and recommends that such interventions should occur within about half a mile of existing transport and town centres.

The report quotes Lord Taylor of Goss Moor who comments “that 20th century suburbia has been frozen in time, because there is no way the people who live there can choose or benefit from the evolution of suburban streets.  Street level democratisation of development is a profoundly important idea that could have a key role to play in addressing both the housing shortage and creating more sustainable and attractive communities”.  The report can be downloaded here.

Community Power: the evidence (New Local)

New Local (formerly the New Local Government Network) is an independent think tank and home to a network of more than 60 councils “united in a drive to create sustainable and community-led public services”.  They describe the heart of their work as a belief in community power – the idea that more power and resources should be given to people in communities.  Amongst their publications in the last few months is an introduction into the work of Elinor Ostrom (see above) and Community Power, which sets out the evidence in support of the benefits of empowering communities.

The report identifies three clusters of approaches for enabling more power to be handed to communities, Community decision-making – involving deliberative and participatory tools;  Collaboration with communities – involving shifting from hierarchical to collaborative approaches; and Building community capacity and assets – equipping communities with the resources to enable them to act themselves.  On the basis of these three strategies the report looks at the evidence for how community power contributes constructively to the following:

  • improving individual health and wellbeing;
  • strengthening community wellbeing and resilience;
  • enhancing democratic participation and boosting trust;
  • building community cohesion;
  • embedding prevention and early intervention in public services; and
  • generating financial savings.

Full of good case studies and examples of the benefits of “going local”, Community Power: the evidence, looks to be a very useful resource for councils considering the adoption of enabling approach to their work, and to communities wanting to convince their local council to change their culture from hierarchical to collaborative.  It can be accessed here.

Recent articles of interest

What will Joe Biden mean for local government in the US?

Shortly before Joe Biden’s inauguration the Washington Monthly ran and online article written by Daniel Block, reflecting on whether or not a Biden presidency would "benefit", or “liberate”, local government. 

In his article Block highlights the issue of “pre-emption”, which, simply put, describes the process by which state governments literally “pre-empt” the decision-making powers of councils within their states.  He argues that during the Trump Presidency and the Republican control of most governorships, the pre-emption of council powers has been widespread, for example.

What’s happening to local democracy in Scotland’s devolved administration?

The creation of the devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales has been hailed as a major victory for devolution, but what happens at the sub-national level in those devolved authorities.  Do the principles of sovereignty, democracy and responsiveness cascade down to local government?  It appears, not always. 

Far from remedying Scotland’s democratic deficit, devolution has deepened it. Indeed, as illustrated above, it has become the defining characteristic of contemporary Scottish political life. Born of an already culturally entrenched elitist myth of Scottish exceptionalism, the notion of a uniquely Scottish form of democracy, devolution became a radical facade that served as a way of rhetorically distancing itself from Westminster democracy.

Allegedly more egalitarian, pluralistic and socially democratic, Scottish democracy was in reality premised on the institutionalised rejection of democratic contestation. Instead, it engineered a technocratic regime of governance that privileges closed-door, committee-room nepotism, lobby groups and expert opinion over open political discussion and debate (Carlton Brick).

Carlton Brick is a lecturer in the school of education and social science at the University of the West of Scotland. The full paper can be found here.

Comprehensive programmes will be needed to lift up neglected regions and cities. Localism is as vital to liberalism as it is to conservatism.  Remember Thomas Jefferson’s credo: “divide the counties into wards.”

One liberal answer to the Brexit slogan “Take Back Control” is to give back more control to people at the lowest possible level, reversing the over-centralisation characteristic of the UK in general and England in particular.  (The future of liberalism, Timothy Garton Ash. Prospect January/February 2021.

MTFJ shows the benefit of partnering with local government

The Mayors’ Task Force for Jobs, a network of all 67 New Zealand mayors, has established a partnership agreement with the Ministry of Social Development that enabled rural councils to apply for funds in order to place 50 young unemployed in their districts people in jobs, training or education. By early February 2021, the 23 councils participating had placed 500 young people in jobs.

Recognising the achievement the Minister for Social Development, the Hon Carmel Sepuloni, wrote to MTFJ stating that the programme “demonstrates what is possible when local and central government work together, leveraging their own strengths, keeping local businesses, communities and people at the heart of our combined work”.  The Minister also noted that she looks forward to seeing even more progress and job growth.  For more on the programme’s success click here.


Why is there so much centralisation?

Given the widespread agreement of the social and economic advantages from redistributing power and authority, so that public services better meet community needs, and the value of communities themselves become active participants in local governance, why is centralisation so widespread?  There is no shortage of theories.

One theory, proposed some years ago by Jean-Paul Faguet, from the London School of Economics, looks for an explanation in vertical competition which, he argues, exists between local and central governments. A critical difference between local government and central government is the level of “residual powers” held by central government.  While public resources tend to be allocated to different uses and places through public negotiation, what counts is where residual power to allocate all remaining resource is held.  Inevitably, central government.

Successful decentralisation depends upon the substantial and sustained cooperation of politicians and bureaucrats throughout a central government.  This is made difficult by the fact that they benefit from the residual power they hold, resulting in a reluctance to hand over power and resources to the periphery.  Consequently, the capital, where central governments reside, receives most of the benefits.

In Faguet's view, robust legal and institutional frameworks are needed to protect the periphery against central encroachment, including a level of constitutional protection for local governments (Why so much centralisation: a model of primitive centripetal accumulation, J P Faguet, 2004, London School of Economics).

Recent webinars and podcasts of interest

Beyond Consultation: rethinking the service delivery model

In this Business lab podcast, David Hammond, former CE of Thames Coromandel District Council, shares his views on the need to think beyond the traditional service delivery model of local government. David argues for a new paradigm that is more focused on engaging with communities and enabling them to solve many of their own issues.  You can hear the podcast here.

Is there a role for local government in New Zealand’s Health and Disability reforms?

The evidence is clear that most of our health is created in the places in which we are born, live, work, age and play. The pandemic has only reinforced that we need more secure and empowered local communities, able to act effectively on their own wellbeing.  Since local government’s purpose is to promote social well-being and, under the Health Act 1956 it has a duty to “improve, promote and protect public health”, what role could, or should, councils and local communities play in the proposed health reforms. 

To help answer this question LGNZ organised a web forum in December 2020 involving:

  • Anna Matheson: Senior Lecturer in Health Policy VUW;
  • Ian Powell; Health commentator and former Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists;
  • Steve Chadwick; Mayor Rotorua Lakes District; and
  • Peter McKinlay; Director Local Government Thinktank.

The webinar can be accessed here.

The importance of community engagement to good health outcomes was reinforced in a recent paper by Roger Strasser and Sarah Strasser entitled Reimaging Primary Health Care Workforce in Rural and Underserved Settings, August 2020: 

A key characteristic of primary health care (PHC) that distinguishes it from health care in general is community engagement (Baatiema et al. 2013). Active community participation and communications are increasingly viewed as essential for health service development and utilization and have been highlighted as particularly important during the COVID-19 crisis. The potential benefits of community engagement include community empowerment in relation to local health service delivery organizations, promotion of locally relevant services to reflect community needs (Baatiema et al. 2013), enhanced health service access and health outcomes, and promotion of health-improving behaviours (Kilpatrick 2009).

There are many potential impediments to effective community engagement. These include the competing interests/goals of different community factions (even pursuing self-interest to the detriment of others); lack of continuous commitment to engagement at the local, regional, and countrywide levels; lack of recognition that local knowledge constitutes expert knowledge that should contribute to health policy decisions; and top-down hierarchical community and health service management structures (Angwenyi et al. 2014; Baatiema et al. 2013). In the interest of health equity, it is imperative that all community members’ voices are heard as part of health service decision-making processes. It is only then that health service delivery truly addresses the health needs of the entire population (Strasser and Strasser p.23).

Professor Sarah has recently been appointed Dean of Te Huataki Waiora School of Health at the University of Waikato, and Professor Roger Strasser has been appointed to the role of Professor of Rural Health within the school.  The paper is available here.