Local Government Magazine

Local government’s central role in public health


With Omicron very much in the forefront of my mind at the time of writing this article, I thought that this month I would consider the role of local government in public health.

What exactly is public health?

A commonly used definition is “the organised local and global efforts to prevent death, disease and injury and promote the health of populations,” (Beaglehole and Bonita 2004).

In the mid 1800s New Zealand cities had open drains carrying sewage. They stank in warm weather. By the 1860s most cities realised this was a problem. Ill disposed of sewage infected water supplies and caused death from cholera, typhoid and dysentery. It wasn’t until the 1870s that cesspits (a hole dug in the backyard with an outhouse on top) were banned at urban dwellings and human waste was then collected and disposed of.

What you may not know is that local government was the founder of our national public health. Since the end of the 19th century local government has provided clean drinking water and removed and safely disposed of rubbish and wastewater. This has saved more lives than any other public health practice, or any health treatment. 

The World Health Organisation sums it up as “Water and sanitation are among the most important determinants of public health. Wherever people achieve reliable access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation they have won a major battle against a wide range of diseases”.

What legislation is in place?

The public health role of local government is set out in numerous pieces of legislation. Some examples include:

The Health Act 1956 explicitly states at section 23: “… it shall be the duty of every local authority to improve, promote, and protect public health within its district” and directs local authorities to appoint environmental health officers to identify and bate nuisances that may be injurious to health and to make bylaws to protect public health. Furthermore, under section 25, local authorities are to provide for sanitary works including drainage, sewerage, and waterworks. As such, the protection of the public’s health from infectious waterborne diseases continues to fall under the remit of local authorities.

The Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) provides a guide on how our natural and physical resources are to be managed sustainably and how to avoid, remedy or mitigate the adverse impact of human activities on the environment. The RMA sets out to enable “people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being and for their health and safety”. Through the RMA Local Government is responsible for closely scrutinising resource consent applications to ensure that any changes to land use do not have adverse effects on communities’ well-being and health and safety.

The Building Act 2004 provides at section three for the regulation of building work to ensure that: People who use buildings can do so safely and without endangering their health; and buildings have attributes that contribute appropriately to the health, physical independence and well-being of the people who use them.

During the Covid pandemic, local government has played a critical role in ensuring the well-being and safety of local communities throughout the country.

In recognition of the importance of this role, central government set up a dedicated working group known as the Covid-19 Local Government Response Unit. It provides support to enable councils to continue to function effectively during the pandemic so they can perform their central role in promoting public health.

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