Global trends in local government and eight predictions on what the new government will mean for local authorities. Karen Thomas, chief executive, SOLGM.
I recently travelled with SOLGM sector improvement principal advisor Richard Mabon to the US for ICMA’s Annual Conference and to the UK for the annual SOLACE Summit. While in the UK, we also visited 13 local authorities, two Crown Entities and a think tank. We observed three broad trends that are ‘worrying’ local government overseas:
- Issues around adaptation and reducing impacts eg, Houston floods from an extreme storm event.
- Pressure on housing availability from a growing population.
- Social unrest from increasing (and sometimes unwelcomed) diversity.
- Increases in worklessness from automation resulting in greater efforts to retrain populations and attract new employers into communities.
Councils are mitigating the above three trends through:
- Building leadership capability in senior managers
- Building trust between councils and communities
- Building collaborative relationships between themselves and with central government, the private sector (through private-public partnerships) and the voluntary sector (co-design, co-production).
The final ‘take home’ message is the importance of ‘owning’ your revenue as councils currently do in New Zealand. The UK austerity story is one that our local government needs to learn well, as dependence on central government delivery transfers left UK councils exposed when the central government changed its investment focus.
Here are eight predictions on what our country’s new government will mean for local government:
1) The return of the “wellbeings” to the purpose of local government
This is probably the most talked about expectation. Labour and the Greens have agreed that the government will develop a comprehensive set of social, environmental and economic indicators. Given the reference to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, we can see these forming the basis of something for local government (though that’s pure speculation) for the period to 2030 – the “wellbeings” might well be the framework. Other areas worth a mention are outlined below.
2) Participation – will increase when trust increases
One of the first things we’ve learned about the new Minister of Local Government, the Hon Nanaia Mahuta, is that she is supportive of initiatives to increase participation, engagement and voting. It is also one of the priorities signalled in the Labour-Greens agreement, that the two will “work to strengthen New Zealand democracy by increasing public participation, openness and transparency around official information”.
We will see the Minister taking an interest in the initiatives that local authorities are taking to engage with their communities. And we don’t think it would be much of a surprise to see a focus on how local authorities are engaging with Maori. The Mana Whakahono agreements under the RMA will probably be one of the few things out of the last RMA Amendments that survives this term of Parliament.
There are plenty of examples from overseas local governments of how activities to build trust between councils and citizens have resulted in increased levels of participation, but ‘building trust’ has not been a specific focus in New Zealand. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we should look to existing examples of success.
LGNZ and SOLGM had been in discussions with the outgoing government on restarting the trial of online voting and looking at other initiatives for modernising the voting experience. It’s clear from research that online voting will not increase participation rates in local elections, but it’s hard to say that online voting will not be the mechanism of choice at some point in the future.
3) Climate change – coming ready or not
This appears to be one of the areas for action within the first 100 days, and a priority overall of all three parties that make up this government. The 100 days plan includes a commitment to begin setting up a Climate Change Commission. The three parties have committed to putting a climate change assessment on all new legislation. This means that when a bill is introduced, all MPs, and the public, will get to learn the likely implications of the legislation on New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions and / or New Zealand’s ability to meet its international greenhouse gas reduction target. It will also detail any relationship between the legislation and the Climate Change Response Act. It looks like something akin to the regulatory impact statement we see in other legislation but we wait to see how this works in practice.
While mitigation actions are important, local government will continue to deal with the impacts of an increasing number of extreme storm events and will need to encourage communities to develop the resilience to get through these events.
4) Transport – as a servant of the people
It is really encouraging to see that the new Minister of Transport, the Hon Phil Twyford, is also Minister of Housing and Urban Development, and Minister for Auckland issues. This appears to signal the government wants to ‘walk the talk’ about aligning transport and land use planning, and just possibly, a government that views the road network as the servant of the community. As Auckland Council so compellingly puts it – “they need to build two new roads a week to accommodate growth”.
If we are going to see a portfolio combination like this, we wonder if the notion of the mandatory spatial plan might be picked up again, owned and driven at the local level instead of resting with a central agency. This is indeed possible with the emphasis that NZ First has placed on ‘the regions’.
5) Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink
Freshwater Hon David Parker, who possibly has the most ministerial experience of the whole government, is Minister for the Environment. In that capacity he takes responsibility for two large areas. The first is management of the freshwater resource. The government has undertaken to hold a Clean Water Summit as part of its first 100 days. Labour’s goal is to restore rivers and lakes to a ‘truly’ swimmable state within a generation. The National Policy Statement will stop water quality getting worse straight away. Water quality will begin improving within five years.
Urban (Three) Waters The first news on this front is that the ‘Better Local Services legislation’ is not likely to be reinstituted when Parliament gets started again. On the whole, SOLGM views that as a good thing. There were some bits that would have strengthened a local authority’s hand when dealing with CCOs and we will look to pick those up independently.
On the other hand, the three waters review will very much remain live and we’ve already heard that Minister Mahuta is very interested in this. The second phase of the Havelock North inquiry might also shape the thinking here too.
6) RMA reform
The second of Minister Parker’s weighty areas of responsibility is RMA reform. The manifesto comments that the Act has been amended many times since passage in 1991, and that there is a need to stocktake whether the Act is still fit for purpose. There’s a commitment to undo what the policy refers to as National’s ‘objectionable’ amendments (interesting choice of words). That appears to include the section 360D powers, powers to standardise plan formats and definitions, limits on notification and public participation, and appeal.
In addition there is a steer towards the greater / enhanced community participation in the RMA processes – including decision-making. There’s a commitment to broadening access to the Environmental Legal Access Fund. Likewise, a commitment to ensure local government engages effectively with iwi – and some commitment to best practice in this area.
7) Funding – what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours
The agreement with NZ First includes holding a new inquiry into local government rates. This is referred to in the agreement as Shand plus 10 (Son of Shand?). David Shand’s 2006-07 inquiry looked at drivers of local authority spending, use of rating tools, affordability etc. It made a large number of recommendations, and no action was taken.
Overseas lessons (including those from Switzerland) indicate that when local government ‘owns’ its revenue streams communities can retain more control over what gets done and when. UK councils are only now learning the importance of locally-raised money, including the requirement to consult with communities over the use of that money.
The agreement with NZ First also includes regional economic development and a commitment that it will be one billion dollars (we believe that to be in total). The agreement with the Greens signals some reorientation of the Land Transport Fund towards sustainable transport – including passenger transport, walking and cycling projects. Communities will be looking to councils to enable investment that reflects their local aspirations rather than blanket ‘one size fits all’ programmes.
8) Summing up
This is a new government, and the change in priorities is quite noticeable. The 100 days programme is relatively light on stuff that has direct impact for / on the sector – it has the Climate Change Commission, KiwiBuild and that’s about it. But starting from about the end of February, we will see change cranking through the system.
Some key themes Concepts such as ‘community’ and ‘wellbeing’ will become part of the lexicon of government again, and not just as in the context of central government finding a rationale to shed functions or responsibilities or put its hand in the community’s pockets. The left views strong community as part of a functioning democracy and society and not just a safety net
• Investment in the regional economies – this regional development fund will give some regional projects a financial shot in the arm. I’m not convinced this will be a universal experience across New Zealand
• A focus on the macro environmental issues – climate change in particular though there is a focus on mitigation and I’m not sure that adaptation hasn’t stayed ‘the poor cousin’
• An emphasis on participation and engagement – both in terms of changes to legislation and the promotion of good practice. We can see a real interest in how the sector engages with Maori
• A winding back of powers to intervene in local government – eg, section 360D of the RMA, and we think that the powers to intervene under the LGA may also get a tweaking (though probably more the circumstances in which these can be used than the powers themselves)
• Paradoxically, we think we will see more direction from the centre – again the environment policy signals more NPS not less. We suspect ministers will retain tight control of the regional development fund, and the sustainability indicators.
This article was first published in the January 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.