October 2019

With the October local elections and final counts complete, it is clear that the public put great faith in councils to shape the well-being of their communities. This is based on the fact a larger than usual group of people stood for local public office, and who got voted in represented a far more diverse group of people than in previous elections.

The challenge will be of course to see whether that faith is rewarded, as councils look to find ways to meet expectations with the limited policy tools at their disposal.

New members are likely to find that many of the issues that they stood to address depend on the agreement of specific Ministers, be it  implementing a congestion charge or beefing up public transport. With central government raising and controlling 95% of all taxes and local government just the 5%, effective local governance must be collaborative, however there is no guarantee that policy makers in the capital will share or be sympathetic to local priorities. Ultimately a rebalancing between the two orders of government is required. 

Your views are needed now.  LGNZ wants to know your views on how best to empower communities.  Check out our Discussion Document and tell us what you think.

International News

In the last month LocalGov has reported:

  • A new lobby group has been established in Northern Ireland to lobby for further devolution and resources for Northern Ireland councils.  The ‘Reform, Devolution and Improvement Network’ has been launched by the Norther Ireland Local government Association to modernise the role and powers of local government.
  • At the recent Conservative Party Conference the British Chancellor, Sajid Javid, announced a new White Paper to move more powers to local areas.  He noted that “we know it’s no good just decreeing from on high what local areas need. Too many people feel power is distant to them”.
  • A group of directly elected regional mayors (the M9 group) called on Whitehall to devolve more powers and responsibilities to local areas. Boris Johnston, PM, stated in support that “it was time we gave more people a say over the places where they live, and it is time that we gave you (the mayors) the proper ability to run things your way.

Increase turnout in local government elections – try localism

Although average voter turnout in the recent local government elections was slightly ahead of the equivalent figure in 2016, comment, from journalists and academics has lamented the poor state of local democracy.  The Sunday Star Times editorial on the following day, with its condemnation of voter apathy, was typical.  Poor turnout is either the fault of local politicians for not doing enough to engage with citizens or local government itself has an image problem.  

While strategies like civic education in schools or coordinated publicity campaigns, or even new voting methods like online voting, have the potential to make a marginal improvement, there is only one way to make a significant improvement and that is through strengthening the role and function of local government. In effect the devolution of roles and responsibilities from central to local government.

For more information about why localism is the answer to increasing voter turnout in local government click here.

Putting localism into practice “on the ground”

Localism is not just about shifting responsibilities from central to sub-national governments. It is also about the way in which councils themselves work and the strategies they use to empower communities within local authority areas to have more say of services they receive.  A recent report from the Centre for London called “Act Local: empowering London’s neighbourhoods” highlights a range of innovative approaches being practiced in that city, for example: 

  • Business improvement Districts (BIDs): BIDs are examples of localism in practice as they allow a local business areas to make decisions about issues from landscape and traffic improvements to promotions, and then implement these through a targeted rate that is paid for by affected businesses.  Auckland, for example, has more than 100 BIDs and they are growing in number throughout NZ.
  • Neighbourhood planning: As a result of its 2011 Localism Act, which gave local people and businesses the right to set local plans to govern development, the United Kingdom is seeing a growth in “neighbourhood planning” with 750 plans adopted by the beginning of 2019.  To be adopted plans must be subject to a local referendum.
  • Participatory budgeting: In the space of a decade or so participatory budgeting has grown from an interesting idea practiced in Porto Alegre to an international phenomena found in cities and districts around the world, and recently in New York.  Participatory budgeting involves ring fencing a share of a local authority’s budget and setting up a process where citizens representatives get to determine how that budget is spent in their areas.
  • The revival of committee systems: Banned by the Blair Labour government in the early 2000s, and having fallen from favour in New Zealand, standing committees are coming back.  Rather than making decisions in formal council meetings that provide little opportunity for citizens to have direct input, standing committees open the process for citizens to interact directly with elected members and their advisers. 

For more information see “Act Local: empowering London’s neighbourhoods”.

Queen signals localism at the heart of the British Government’s programme

In her speech opening Parliament, the Queen told MPs and Lords: ‘A white paper will be published to set out my Government’s ambitions for unleashing regional potential in England, and to enable decisions that affect local people to be made at a local level. (LocalGov 14 October 2019).

Localism essential to tackling regional inequality

Devolving authority to communities and their local authorities is essential if they are to address the economic inequality that exists between New Zealand’s regions – inequality that is reflected in levels of unemployment, underemployment, imprisonment, violence and poor health and education outcomes.

Governments have tried and failed to address regional inequality for many decades and while the Provincial Growth Fund is intended to address this, it cannot change the underlying structural issues that drive equality.  After all, central government cannot be everywhere and its “one size fits all” approach is poorly suited to address the different circumstances our regions. 

The only way many of these issues can be addressed is to empower communities themselves to find the solutions that will work in their various areas, whether skills training, or programmes to attract investment.  One approach that has worked in other parts of the world involves the establishment of special regulatory areas, such as special economic zones.  

Special economic zones allow cities and regions to try our new and innovative policy solutions to regional issues.  Such zones tend to be characterised by agreement on policies and regulations that not only apply across the zone or region but are designed to attract a certain kind of investment that builds upon the unique strengths and attributes of the area. More information about special economic zones can be found here.