Local Government Magazine
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Devolution is the next big thing

By Josie Pagani, political strategist and commentator.

In a cosy basement bar in Copenhagen, my Danish friend and I were entertaining ourselves after a couple of beers,  listing things that are ‘right wing’, and things that are ‘left wing.’

In the ‘right’ column: roads, pick-up trucks, mullet haircuts (I had to explain that), white bread, reality TV, meat, talk-back radio, fireplaces, the regions, and anything big.

In the ‘left’ column: public transport, central  government, public servants, beards, brown bread, all vegetables except potatoes (definitely right wing), publicly-funded radio, solar panels, cities and most small things.

Of course, in nearly all these cases, there is, nothing intrinsically left or right about them. They are cultural symbols.

Somehow, we have added devolution of service delivery to this list, perhaps because criticism of centralisation has often been promoted by advocates of user pays and privatisation, and for a long time the Big State delivered social progress like the welfare state.

It was Prime minister Bill English who advocated for targeted social investment and championed Whanau Ora. Ideas that sought to shift funds and decision-making into the hands of local and iwi service providers, where locals knew needy families better than Wellington.

The Labour government has pulled services to the centre. Te Whatu Ora is centralised. Its former chair Rob, ‘Martin Luther King’ Campbell, is on a crusade to devolve more power to communities and iwi. A large health bureaucracy is captured by its bureaucrats and never adequately responsive to the people it is meant to serve, he says.

The idea of ‘subsidiarity’ comes from the social justice wing of the Catholic Church: that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most local level capable of resolving them. It is an anti-elite movement that believes devolving power leads to better decision-making and greater efficiency.

In the UK, Labour councils have led the way in localisation, although with the support of a Tory government. The UK Localism Act of 2010 changed the relationship between central and local government.

Previously, local authorities collected rent from their social tenants and sent the money to central government. Funding of social housing now shifted power to the local level in the belief that decision-making at the level of government closest to local people gets better outcomes.

The UK has a Minister of State for Decentralisation whose push for localisation argues that, for too long, central government has hoarded and concentrated power.

“Trying to improve people’s lives by imposing decisions, setting targets and demanding inspections from Whitehall simply doesn’t work. It creates bureaucracy. It leaves no room for adaptation to reflect local circumstances or innovation to deliver services more effectively and at lower cost. And it leaves people feeling ‘done to’ and imposed upon – the very opposite of the sense of participation and involvement on which a healthy democracy thrives.”


Labour-led Newcastle City Council made the case to Whitehall that it had about 120,000 of the UK’s at-risk families. Why not give them the millions of pounds going into benefits, police call outs, and truancy programmes, then see if they could make a better fist of it? Which they did.

When Labour’s Jim McMahon became the leader of Oldham Council in the UK, he set up stand-alone units to take control of family support and work programmes. After a few years of taking over the programmes from central government, Oldham Council’s success rates rose from about three percent to over 50 percent.

New Zealand is an outlier when it comes to giving local councils power. On average, 30 percent of the public spending of OECD member countries is controlled by local government. In New Zealand that figure stands at about 11 percent. That means that 89 cents of every dollar spent on roads, schools, health and community development is directed by Wellington.

In New Zealand, fewer than 40% of voters cast a ballot in last year’s local elections, compared to about 80% at the general election. Why would voters bother to vote if it doesn’t affect much in their lives? Give local government more power, and the funding with it, and watch voters turn out.

The opposite is happening. Local government in New Zealand is about to do less. The Government’s overhaul of water services and the replacement of the Resource Management Act will potentially strip councils of responsibilities.

The resistance to Three Waters has created tension over both local control of local assets, and accountability. Non-Maori who are happy to return to Maori control over, say, traditionally owned land and forests, are vexed by Maori having a say in the provision of “my own water or health care”. It’s understandable, not racist, they say, to ask why representatives who are not accountable to me should have a say in services for me.

Devolving power is a more likely way to balance democratic accountability with Treaty obligations, not because local decision makers are intrinsically wiser than central ones, but because they are more likely to understand nuances in the balance between overlapping interests.

Devolution has been tried before. Local authorities have resisted because responsibility was often devolved without funding.

If we want to understand why local strength is important, consider that a small local council is to New Zealand what New Zealand is to the world. We would not accept settings that say to our kids their future is determined in Sydney or London or Dubai. So we need to build out from the strengths of our local communities.

The positioning of New Zealand, and of each region, has to be that people want to live here because of what makes us unique, not what makes us more like other places. Uniqueness is cradled better in a devolved structure than a centralised one.

Therefore, I would give our local government more to do, not less. In housing, education, policing and infrastructure, local communities know their priorities better than central government. If we handed housing responsibility to iwi, councils, and social providers, maybe we wouldn’t have a housing crisis.

Devolution is the next big political  and philosophical movement. It is not a right wing idea of the withering away of the state, but an idea that empowers communities to make services and democracy work better.

Those who champion it deserve to win elections.



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