Jean Drage: Urgent debate needed on changes in local government

By Jean Drage *

Notice – Local government is in the news.

For those watching this level of government closely, there is a growing sense that a significant change is in the air. Almost every week (or at least it seems) we hear new announcements about central government policies being debated regarding local government, such as:

  • Centralize the so-called “three waters” (water supply, sewage and storm water – all essential functions of our local councils) into a small number of entities independent of the councils;
  • Major change in the way council planning will be carried out under soon to be introduced legislation which will replace the 1991 Resource Management Act;
  • Respond to the urgent need to identify, build and finance new infrastructure across the country; and
  • Provide solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Now, in what can only be described as an effort to pick up the rest of local government business that is not covered above, the Labor government has announced a three-year independent review on the future of democracy local.

So what to do with all this? You could say “about the weather”, and some did, but otherwise there wasn’t much else. This may be due both to the number of ongoing reviews across the political spectrum and to the virus pandemic that has dominated our lives over the past year. But I suspect this is more likely due to the fact that so many decisions have already been made to centralize local government functions that this independent review has been left with little reaction.

However, we have to be careful here. Our eyes may have been diverted by the potential opportunity to have a say in what local government might look like in the future, but we cannot ignore what is already happening. The announcement of the $ 296 million budget to establish the new unelected water utility entities tells us that this is happening, despite the word “choice” still being used. Under current local government legislation, impending council decisions on this important issue will surely require consultation with communities, although I understand that special legislation has been proposed to determine how this happens.

And $ 131 million to implement RMA reforms underscores the fact that planning will soon be regional rather than local, although there are more questions than answers about how this new process to protect our planet works. environment. While many might agree with the ongoing reform package, we need to be very clear on what they will mean in the long run for local government.

So back to the review: The Investigation into the Future of Local Government conducted by a panel of experts reporting to the Minister of Local Government. There are a myriad of issues to tackle in a review of what local government should look like in the future, but rather than rushing to solutions at the moment, let’s start with the concepts that should underpin this review. current. My suggestion is that we need a clear understanding of:

  • What local democracy is and how to make it work better for citizens and communities (a 42% voter turnout in the 2019 local elections is just one example of communities disengaging from their local councils) ;
  • How representative democracy can be strengthened in this second level of government. Increasing accountability and transparency around political decision-making is crucial for success here (a recent report on councilor attendance at Christchurch City Council meetings found that council had held 70 closed meetings over the past few years. Last 18 months – a direct contradiction to the principle of openness, transparent and democratically accountable local government required by law); and
  • The future of local government rests on a “whole-of-government” approach to service delivery, infrastructure construction and financing. The key here, of course, is that this approach is based on a positive and proactive relationship between local government and central government that works for common results.

Therefore, the debate needs to be informed by an analysis of what local democracy has looked like over the past 30 years (since the last revision), the results of legislation enacted during this period (especially around elections local) and the lack of transparency around council decision-making.

It is essential that we do not fall into the trap of simply restructuring this level of government, as happened in the last review in 1989, when little consideration was given to the impact. on communities when the number of councils had been reduced.

Or that another set of regulations are enacted that immobilize progress in red tape and ultimately run counter to decisions made locally and democratically.

Let’s not assume (with little evidence) that the “big is better” business model will deliver better results. We already know that the label of ‘governance’ has evolved into a belief that decisions made outside democratic processes are better as opposed to genuine debate and democratic decision-making based on good information and knowledge. good knowledge of community interests.

The challenges for the Canterbury community when the Canterbury Regional Council was sacked in 2010 provide us with an alarming example of how central government intervention can override local democracy. It took nine more years for democracy to be restored in this region.

While the decision of the Minister of Local Government to set up this independent review of New Zealand’s local government is welcome, it should have happened before recent major decisions were made on planning and the three waters. The current review has many challenges, such as inadequate funding for local communities, the ability of councils to respond to the growing urgency to replace aging infrastructure and support growth while ensuring the economic and environmental protection of their communities. communities, as well as the serious consequences of climate change.

What we have to remember here is that local government is more than a set of services. It ensures the social, economic, cultural and environmental well-being of its communities and is the main advocate or spokesperson for these communities. It is about local democracy. New Zealand may have a small population, but our geography is varied and what works in one part of the country won’t necessarily work in another.

New Zealand’s central government has always held the reins of power firmly, but strong, decentralized, community-based local government is crucial for our future democracy. It is imperative that this exam pass.

This article was first published by The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

*Jean Drage is a researcher, writer and teacher on local government and politics in New Zealand with a particular interest in political representation and local elections.

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