Local Government Magazine
Governance

A question of balance

Central & local government roles

Julienne Molineaux

The Policy Observatory at Auckland University of Technology has a series of publications on some local government governance issues, which diagnose problems and suggest solutions. In particular, the authors ask what the role for local government is and question how to get the central/local mix right. Julienne Molineaux outlines publications contributing to the recent debate.

Mike Reid

The central/local government relationship contains a tension around centralisation and control. Local government is, mostly, at the mercy of central government with regards to its role, powers and some aspects of revenue. Local government actors can call for more decentralisation, but for this to happen, central government must cede some power. A change of government after nine years is an opportune time to re-examine the balance between the levels of government and advocate a policy re-set.The Policy Observatory at Auckland University of Technology has a series of publications on some local government governance issues, which diagnose problems and suggest solutions. In particular, the authors ask what the role for local government is and question how to get the central/local mix right. Julienne Molineaux outlines publications contributing to the recent debate.

Local Government New Zealand principal policy advisor Mike Reid has written a report called Saving Local Democracy: An agenda for the new government (February 2018) in which he argues for significant policy changes that not only reverse the reforms of the previous government (2008-2017) but improve on the pre-2008 policy settings.

He also advocates entrenching the role and powers of local government in a constitution, so the focus of the sector does not swing wildly every time central government changes.

Reid, M. (2018, February 8). Saving Local Democracy: An agenda for the new government. Auckland: The Policy Observatory. bit.ly/SavingLocalDemocracy_MReid

Jean Drage

Jean Drage of Lincoln University and author of many books and articles on local government, wrote Strengthening local voices (October 2018). In this she builds on Mike Reid’s report, concentrating on the ways in which citizens and communities ‘have a say’ in local government.

Jean looks at how the right to ‘have a say’ in local government has slowly eroded in the past few decades. The principles of subsidiarity hold that decisions should be made at the level closest to those affected by them, yet the ability of local communities to have a say in their affairs has diminished on a range of fronts.

These include:

• a drop in the number of elected councillors per capita;

• a move to more managerial and less democratic decision-making;

• the growth of Council-Controlled Organisations;

• the streamlining of planning and environmental management processes which lessens the input of elected officials and community voices; and

• central government interference in local government affairs via the Local Government Commission.

The outcome of much of this change has been a steady decline in voter interest in local elections and a growing disconnect between councils and their communities. This report argues for a strengthening of local voices in local government and identifies what may help and hinder this.

Drage, J. (2018, October 30). Strengthening local voices. Auckland: The Policy Observatory. bit.ly/StrengtheningLocalVoices_JDrage

Christine Rose

Former deputy mayor of the Rodney District Council Christine Rose writes about the need for local authorities to be more involved in making local decisions – but points to the ways central government is working against this.

She documents how local government has its parameters established and shifted by central government.

While the new government has shown some support for a community well-being focus for local government, it is unlikely to give up control – witness central government’s involvement in three waters, transport and housing.

Meanwhile, central government has not supported moves to make it easier to establish Maori wards. Ultimately, Christine concludes, central government has shown no willingness to devolve power.

Rose, C. (2018, November 27). To enshrine and define local government once and for all. bit.ly/EnshrineAndDefine_CRose

David Shand

Formerly the chair of the 2007 Rates Inquiry and a member of the 2008-9 Royal Commission on Auckland Governance, David Shand writes a response to Christine Rose’s briefing paper, in a short paper called Local government role and autonomy: Some additional perspectives (February 2019). David distinguishes between different kinds of autonomy for local decision making:

Ian Shirley’s legacy

The Policy Observatory was founded at AUT by the late Professor Ian Shirley, who had a decades-long interest in the nature of communities and cities. Professor Shirley was an advocate for a larger council in Auckland, although he did not support all elements of the eventual design of the new Auckland Council. The Policy Observatory continues Professor Shirley’s local government interests. You can read more on its website: thepolicyobservatory.aut.ac.nz

• The allocation of functions between central and local government;

• The extent of centralisation of decision making within central government (e.g. to local or regional offices of central government agencies); and

• The degree of autonomy local government has in undertaking its limited role when compared with other OECD countries.

Most discussion on centralisation looks at the first of these and there appears to be little research on the second. David Shand makes the case for the third; that while local government in New Zealand has a limited role, it has a lot of autonomy in its financial policies and budget decisions, compared to many OECD countries. He argues this autonomy should be protected.

The second part of David’s paper is a brief discussion of the core services versus well-being debate. This is about the extent of local government’s role: should it stick to core services (and if so, what are these?) or concern itself with the wider well-being of its residents?

David points out that local government has long had an interest in a wide range of issues and policies, from housing to ports and electricity, and the power of general competence.

This broad view of local democracy and local government was reduced following the reforms of the 1980s, but restoring them brings local government in line, not only with history, but the new central government well-being approach to public finances.

Shand, D. (2019, February 19). Local government role and autonomy: Some additional perspectives. Auckland: The Policy Observatory. bit.ly/RoleAndAutonomy_DShand


This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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