The recent election has given councils a new cohort of elected members, a cohort characterised by more women and young people than we’ve seen in the past. Councils are beginning to reflect the diversity of their communities, something that over time will strengthen their legitimacy and mandate in the eyes of their citizens. It is vital that we retain and build on the diversity that is beginning to emerge, but for that to happen local government’s relevance to its communities and its ability to meet the expectations of local citizens, needs to be strengthened.
Elected members stand to make a difference in their communities. Some will have ambitions to drive significant change while others will have more modest expectations. Regardless of the extent of the changes they wish to make, however, all new members share a common interest in leaving their district, city ore region in a better state than when they found it. This may not be as easy as elected members expect as councils may not have the “tools” needed to achieve their objectives. For many, the lack of tools, whether funding or powers, will be an issue.
The growing power of government as evidenced by its increasing intervention in the economic and social affairs of the people constitutes another reason for the existence of an efficient system of local government. …an effective local government structure is an important counterweight to the growth of central government power.
Local government provides the democratic machinery for the expression of local opinion on all matters of public policy (Prof. John Roberts, 1968, Wellington.)
In some cases the issues on which members stood will fall within the authority of central government rather than local, and even for matters that sit within local government’s role there is a possibility that they will be subject to conditions set by central government, reducing local discretion. For example, members who stood on issues like improving safety, ending homelessness or introducing light rail are likely to find that the solutions depend on central government or its agencies.
New Zealand is unusual in this way. Unlike many other countries we tend to look to central government to fix our problems even though they involve matters which might be more efficiently and effectively addressed by politicians at the local level. And even when central government has given councils responsibility for addressing local concerns members are not always given the necessary range of powers to do the job - Local alcohol policies (LAPs) are a case in point.
LAPs were intended to enable citizens to set limits on location and number of licensed premises in their communities, along with hours. While LAPs have been put in place in a number of suburbs the majority have proved to be almost toothless due to the grounds on which an LAP can be challenged in court.
The experience with LAPs highlights the challenges facing councils when seeking to respond to community concerns, in this case about the impact of alcohol consumption of social well-being. It is an issue not confined to any one policy area and not one that elected members face to the same degree in many other countries.
This is the primary reason that led LGNZ to undertake its localism project to reinvigorate local democracy by broadening the range of decisions that elected members can make, increasing their influence on the shape of government policies and services delivered in their districts, and enabling communities to have more say.
Top-down policy making, because it often fails to reflect the diversity of needs and preferences of communities, is acting as a brake on New Zeeland’s social and economic progress. As the only public bodies with a democratic mandate to represent the interests of districts, cities and regions it is vital that we not only recognise the importance of our local elected members but also empower them in order to ensure that public policies and programmes are fit for purpose.
We need to show faith in our new elected members and provide them with the tools, both the powers and the funding, to enable them to fulfil their expectations and make their communities better places in which to live and invest. This is the purpose of LGNZ’s localism initiative. Localism, as we have conceived it, involves:
- transferring to local government those local public services currently performed by central government which are inherently local;
- enabling councils to negotiate agreements with central government to take responsibility for services currently provided by central government, with the funding, where they can show the transfer will lead to better local outcomes;
- promoting joined up approaches with central government agencies to ensure public services address local priorities;
- strengthening local participation and the involvement of citizens in local government.
It is a programme of work designed increase the relevance of local government to their communities and give elected members the “tools” so that they can meet their goal to make their communities a better place than when they were elected.