As councils reflect on the recommendations in the Future for Local Government report, and as some begin their next representation review, Gavin Beattie, a former senior adviser to the Local Government Commission, suggests it is a good time for councils to give further consideration to the role community boards could play in their district.
All territorial authorities are required to consider whether there should be community boards in their district or city, as part of their periodic representation review. Reviews allow councils to reflect on the importance they put on local engagement and decision-making in the context of the community boards option.
This next round of representation reviews provides an even greater opportunity for reflection, as councils concurrently consider their position in relation to the challenge presented by the Future for Local Government panel, for local government to “now own and drive the change to make it fit for the future”.
This ‘change’ may well need to include structural reform at the council level, along the lines identified by the panel. But this need not, and indeed must not, be at the expense of local community engagement and decision-making where that is most appropriate.
In other words, the change needs to involve both structures at council level that are big enough with the necessary capacity to address the undoubted challenges facing the country, and, at the same time, complementary structures that are able to facilitate ongoing meaningful and effective engagement at the local community level.
While it may take some time for structural reform of councils to occur, councils meanwhile have the opportunity, as part of their next representation review, to consider structures at the community level which will be “fit for the future”, whatever that future might look like.
At the moment, 39 out of 66 territorial authorities (excluding Auckland with its local boards) have community boards, and only 11 of these 39 have boards covering the whole district or city. Twelve of the 39 have just one community board covering part of their area.
While community boards, quite understandably, have never been mandatory given the diversity in the size and nature of Aotearoa’s districts and cities, it does appear there is scope for some meaningful local discussions in many areas, on what community boards may be able to offer in the future.
This relates firstly to the ongoing challenges of encouraging greater community engagement in the business of local government.
Greater engagement can be achieved by bringing decision-making, where appropriate, closer to those directly affected by those decisions. This proposition is supported by statistics showing that smaller councils, i.e. councils with under 20,000 people, have consistently had higher voter turnouts than their larger equivalents, since the reforms of the late 1980s.
This is not an argument for small councils per se, rather to show the need for some form of structure at the local ‘grassroots’ level.
Just one way to encourage greater local engagement is the introduction of some form of participatory budgeting at the community level. Community boards, as a local grassroots structure, are ideally placed to lead this sort of initiative.
The community board option could also be applied in response to another increasingly important issue, namely promotion of local community resilience. This could include a role helping with the co-ordination of responses to significant weather events, which often lead to physical isolation of communities.
In respect of more localised decision-making, it should first be noted that under the Local Government Act 2002, a ‘delegation’ gives the delegatee the authority to act “in the like manner and with the same effect as the local authority” (clause 32, Schedule 7, LGA).
However, councils, with a few exceptions, have tended to take a far narrower approach to delegations of responsibilities to their community boards.
This often takes the form of purported ‘delegations’ to community boards to make recommendations on specific matters. Whereas this power already effectively exists under the statutory role of community boards, with the provision for a board to “consider and report on all matters referred to it by the territorial authority, or any matter of interest or concern to the community board” (section 52(b), LGA).
One council that has taken a more expansive approach to (actual) local decision-making, is Christchurch City Council. This approach includes the council’s adoption of principles based on the Auckland local boards model, under which decision-making for non-regulatory activities of the council in a community board area, should be exercised by the community board.
Just one consequential benefit of delegations to community boards of real decision-making responsibility, is allowing the council to focus on more strategic district- or city-wide matters. This will become even more important in future, as councils grapple with the big issues facing their communities and the country as a whole.
I was struck by a revealing finding in a community survey conducted as part of one council’s preliminary consultation for its last representation review. This was that at least half of the respondents were not even aware of the existence of community boards in the district.
This suggests a number of councils have work to do, first to inform their local communities of both the options available for achieving greater community engagement and possible local decision-making, and then deciding on the form and roles such bodies should take in practice.
In the words of the Future for Local Government panel, what it will take for councils to own and drive the change to make them fit for the future, is “a significant shift in councils’ mindsets … (that) will unleash community value and local wellbeing.” Councils should bear this in mind as they embark on their next representation review, including the potential of the community board option.