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Power Plays: Time to remodel councils' links with communities?

POWER PLAYS: Remodelling links with communities

Are councils willing or able to change the governance relationships they have with their communities? Thames-Coromandel District Council chief executive David Hammond looks at models to respond to increasing demands to devolve power to local citizens.

Too much power?
Too much power?

The historic settlement of Coroglen, known as Gumtown during its kauri milling days, lies on the Coromandel’s east coast. On a sunny morning in 2015, Thames-Coromandel District Council (TCDC) mayor Glenn Leach pulled over at the old Coroglen saleyards on the Waiwawa River. A new reserve had just been completed by the Mercury Bay Community Board. “We used to sell 300 to 400 head of stock here every year,” he recalls. “And the pub afterwards would be heaving on stock day. In the old days, the boats used to come up to the hall and oxen trains hauled supplies up to the bush camps.”

Coroglen had not been a happy community a year earlier when the then owners, PGG Wrightson, put the whole site up for sale to howls of local protest. A partnership made up of council and the Mercury Bay Community Board intervened and bought the site using funds from the community board.

Once the shock of losing the saleyards had passed, Coroglen residents worked with their board to design and develop a new reserve.

Residents, board members and staff cleared scrubby bush along the Waiwawa River to regain access to historic swimming holes, re-contoured land, added picnic facilities, and turned an old building into eco-loos and changing rooms. Mayor Leach is proud of the finished project.

“In reality if you give empowerment to the people and locals make decisions for local people then normally you have the people onside with you,” he says. “They’ll do wonderful things and that’s why we’re here looking at this wonderful little reserve.”

ORIGINAL PURPOSE

The Mercury Bay Community Board emerged from Labour and Dr Michael Bassett’s 1989 local government reforms. Sir Brian Elwood led a process which reduced 850 local bodies to 86 and added around 150 community boards. These boards now number some 108.

Later outlining his reasoning for establishing community boards, Michael pointed out they were his idea in the first place.

“The loss of so many territorials in 1989… risked removing community access to elected representatives. Community boards were a guarantee at that time that neighbourhoods could relate to their councils.”

Still, he said community boards have limited powers and roles, and “have not been a roaring success”.

“They are expensive to service. Some councils around the country have tried hard to involve them within the overall scheme of things; others have treated them as little more than an irritating add-on to the body politic.”

While access to representation was Michael’s original concern, today there is a growing demand for more power- sharing at local level – a force known as ‘localism’. This is at odds with the current model of local government which maintains a central-power approach to governance and management in which ‘head office’ exercises power on behalf of communities.

The central-power model exists on the assumption that it is more cost-efficient and effective because communities cannot deliver modern services to required professional standards and because they lack compulsion to change.

Rt Hon Bill English highlighted this attitude when he observed in 2013, “when you are talking about localism in New Zealand you are running against a deep-seated ideology, and it is one of the reasons why localism has not made a lot of traction. The good news is: statism has peaked.”

WHAT TO CHANGE?

Statism may have peaked, but are councils able or willing to change the governance relationships they have with their communities?

Local authorities from Auckland, Western Bays and Christchurch are facing increasing public calls for local power-sharing. This is occurring at the same time as other forces are advocating for larger units of local government and more centralised control over infrastructure.

We are in a period of significant flux, and in order to respond to change, future forms of local authority governance and management will undoubtedly reflect more variation than they currently do.

‘Citizen engagement’ – or greater community input into decision-making – is one way councils in both Australia and New Zealand have responded to community demands for more say over local matters which affect them.

Citizen engagement is attractive to councils as it does not challenge them to fundamentally alter the balance of power in their council’s governance or management.

In practice, demands for power-sharing are being reduced to little more than a matter of effective consultation and a reasonable reaction for councils is to listen and gather more information into decision-making.

It is unclear, however, whether the public will be satisfied with councils’ own definitions of ‘reasonable’ or continue to demand genuine power-sharing.

In my view, TCDC has made the most responsive reaction to demands for power-sharing in New Zealand to date. It has adopted a devolved ‘subsidiarity’ model that is transforming every structure of the council.

Beginning with the 2010 local authority election – which was fought over options which would fundamentally change the way the council was operating – all elected councillors with the exception of one were voted out. This created the mandate for changes which were introduced in 2012. The council returned power to local people to the fullest extent that the Local Government Act 2002 allows in a new devolved model it calls community empowerment.

Subsidiarity is not pure localism. Localism holds that power be exercised at the lowest practical level – close to the people affected by decisions rather than distant from them. Subsidiarity has localism at its core but recognises that it makes sense for some functions and powers to be exercised at a more centralised level in an easy pragmatic relationship.

TCDC has defined ‘core’ services which are to remain at a district level and identified 14 services (including libraries, parks, public toilets and harbours) which are now delivered locally under the district’s community boards. The level of devolution includes budgets, decision-making, service and funding method choices.

Community boards were chosen because they are the most local form of elected representative democracy with the council welcoming board leadership into every elected forum.

This inclusive approach has integrated leadership and fundamentally changed both governance and management practices, leading to a bedding in of the model. To the surprise of many, overall council costs have fallen.

FIT-FOR-PURPOSE

The key in responding to demands for power-sharing and more local control over matters affecting local people is to understand the drivers of change and exercise a willingness to explore change.

This involves a spectrum ranging from enhanced citizen engagement to a fundamental realignment of the structure of power in the council. There is no one model that fits all local authorities.

TCDC has extended our knowledge of viable governance models available to councils. Michael Bassett rightly observed back in 2008 that councils have treated community boards “as little more than an irritating add-on to the body politic”. Coromandel has shown that this is no longer neither necessarily fair nor accurate.

If a council desires to explore a devolved model to community boards there is a successful recipe. Boards need to be welcomed as an integrated part of a council’s elected leadership team without barriers, resourced effectively, and given delegations for local decision-making and funding of local affairs.

For their part of the deal, community boards need to act up to the responsibilities given. They need to commit to cost efficiency, focus on the local and stop bitching about their councils. That way, we will all be responsible partners sharing a unified team approach.


This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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