November 2019

As December 15 approaches submissions on the localism discussion paper, Refocussing Local Democracy, are starting to arrive in the LGNZ office.  A number of councils have asked to extend the closing date due to the timing of meetings following the October elections.  We are very happy to extend the date for receiving submissions as we will be working on the draft localism manifesto throughout January and early February, so any submissions received by the end of January will definitely be considered. 

Hawkes Bay leaders want a say on health

In response to poor health statistics in the Hawkes Bay the councils’ mayors wrote to the Minister of Health asking to be consulted on the appointment of the next DHB chair and its chief executive officer.

The letter highlights growing frustration at the inability of central government to address serious issues of poverty, poor health and under-achievement within the region and a belief that nationally funded services need more local direction.  Their request is modest, as turning around the poor statistics is likely to require a different paradigm for allocating public funding.  Such a response needs take a more-bottom up approach, a joined-up one that is informed by local and regional priorities.

The full item can be accessed here.

Why support a localist agenda?

The answer is because citizens feel closer to their community than they do to their country. A recent survey on social capital, civic health and the quality of life in the United States (AEI February 2019) found that although only 43 per cent of Americans felt confident in the direction the country as a whole was taking, while the proportion who were positive about their local community was 73 per cent.

It is at the local level that communities forge relationships, build social capital and contribute to efforts to enhance their neighbourhood’s quality of life.  This is the terrain of the local government that, due to proximity, enables people in neighbourhoods to directly influence the public decisions that affect those neighbourhoods.  Councils also make an important contribution to individual and community well-being with council amenities featuring strongly amongst the factors people identified as contributing to a successful community.  

The most commonly identified factors were:

  • good local schools;
  • having libraries and community centres nearby;
  • having grocery stores nearby;
  • strong families; and
  • having public parks, waterways or beaches nearby.

How centralists and localists see the world

We often make a distinction between being a centralist or localist, but what is the difference? 

Centralists generally believe that national political leaders and administrators know best how to provide social and personal security, promote economic growth, and maintain political stability.

Localists (decentralists) generally believe that the best public policies come from wide participation in public affairs and the application of local knowledge about how best to solve problems and meet the needs of citizens.

The differences reflect opposing views about the nature of the state and how it should operate.  One view treats the state as a paternalistic body, which not only knows what citizens’ best interests are but believes that such interests are best achieved through specialised knowledge and scarce expertise.  The other treats citizens as active agents in the business of governing and begins with the assumption that power flows upwards from citizens.

Localism is more than local governance structures or decentralising decision-making. It is about the connections and feelings of belonging that unite people within their communities. It is about how people perceive their own power and ability to make change in their local area alongside their neighbours (Locality.org.uk).

Editorial: Further increasing the diversity of councils needs a commitment to localism

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.

Editorial: Isn’t New Zealand too small for localism to work?

Compared to most countries, New Zealand has a small population. However, size is no barrier to experiencing the benefits of localism and some of the most decentralised counties are also small, consider for example three highly decentralised countries;

  • Denmark – approximate population 5 million
  • Switzerland – approximate population 8 million
  • Iceland – approximate population 340,000.

New Zealand’s landmass spans 268,021km2, and we have 78 sub-central units of government, including territorial authorities, and regional and unitary councils.  By comparison Switzerland, our go-to country for looking at how well localism works, has a population slightly above New Zealand’s at 8.4 million, yet the area of Switzerland is much smaller at 41,285km2.  In comparison to Switzerland, which has 26 cantons (regions) and 2,294 communes (municipalities, New Zealand’s 78 local and regional councils are massive in size and capacity.

An interesting comparison is Iceland which is considerably more decentralised than New Zealand.  Iceland is less than half the size of New Zealand and has fewer than 340,000 inhabitants compared, compared to our 5 million. Yet compared to New Zealand’s 78 councils, which have an average population of around 60,000 people, Iceland has 75 councils with an average population of around 2,500, which not only deliver the same services as councils in NZ but also undertake extensive health, housing and education roles.

Being small gives New Zealand a unique position to actively involve citizens and communities in the process of governing their communities.  It is precisely our size that presents us with the opportunity to create a democracy characterised by more active involvement of citizens in the processes of governing their towns, cities and regions.