Walk the localism talk

Insights Newsletter
29 July, 2016

As a crude rule of thumb, presenting at a conference is always easier when you are telling the audience something it wants to hear. That was the case when I launched The Local Benchmark: When Smaller is Better at the annual Local Government New Zealand conference on Monday.

One of the main messages of the report is that the devolution of decision-making power from central government to local communities can make them stronger and more prosperous. That is certainly the case in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and increasingly the United Kingdom, where local authorities have much more control over their affairs than here in New Zealand.

It was doubly well received as it followed Prime Minister John Key’s speech on the previous day, where he reiterated his government’s commitment to pursue amalgamations in the sector.

Outright amalgamations are not popular among communities or local officials, as judged by the failed bids to merge councils in the Hawkes Bay, Northland and the Greater Wellington regions. Nor are amalgamations by stealth, which is how many in the sector regard the Better Local Services Reforms.

It has yet to be established whether local officials took in the other key message in the report, namely that if they want expanded responsibilities, then they have to prove they are up to the task.

Greater Manchester worked for 30 years on its partnership with central government. In the Netherlands, the local government association has worked to lift performance in the sector over a similar period to reassure central government that it is dealing with credible partners.

Local government here has a ways to go yet. Our local authorities consult extensively, even exhaustively, but unless you are a lawyer most of us are locked out of the planning process. Councils are also required to produce cost benefit analyses on major spending decisions, but in practice these can amount to little more than a list of pros and cons.

Hardly a basis for building trust.

The Initiative has long been a proponent of devolution and localism as a means of improving the pace of economic growth and promoting regulatory efficiency. That belief has always been based on local government acting as a capable, accountable and responsible partner. If councils truly want greater autonomy, they need to prove to central government they are up to the task. In other words, walk the localism talk.

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