Stuart Crosby is the president of Local Government New Zealand, a current Bay of Plenty Regional councillor, and was the Tauranga Mayor from 2004 to 2016.
With the general election under our collective belt it’s about time that New Zealand had a conversation about the future.
No, not the inevitable 100-day plan or how the ministerial portfolios are divvied up, but about local government.
Local government occupies a rather conflicted position in the New Zealand psyche, given that we utterly rely on it, but don’t always value it, so this will be a difficult conversation, but it’s one that we need to have.
Local authorities are the tier of government that are closest to the people, and we all rely on in it order to live our lives on an everyday basis. Be it roads, water, libraries, planning, place making, economic development or environmental protection, the measure of success is that we largely don’t even notice these services.
It is only when things go wrong that the public pay attention. That’s absolutely appropriate, but even then it’s important to look at how things go wrong.
If a single council gets something wrong, or a wheel comes off, then it’s on the council, and fair cop.
At the same time, if we’re seeing the same rear driver’s side wheel come off due to the same failing lug nut – i.e. the same problem playing out across the country – then it’s a strong sign the problem has more to do with the system than any individual council.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the issues that featured highly in the election, particularly as they relate to local government; infrastructure deficits, housing, climate change, three waters and freshwater.
All of these problems are playing out in every council across the country, which is a clear sign that we’ve got a problem with the system.
The difficult conversation we as Local Government New Zealand want to have with the incoming Government is how do fix the system that local government operates in?
The first step is realising that our country can’t continue to operate with two separate government systems failing to work cohesively together. The decisions made by central government affect local councils across the spectrum of its briefs, and vice versa, and often have perverse effects.
Take immigration. Successive governments have fuelled New Zealand’s population growth, but while happy to reap the tax benefits, they have given very little consideration to the infrastructure costs imposed by loose immigration settings.
The result is that local government’s ability to deal with growth issues has failed to keep pace. Whether releasing land, incentivising growth or funding and developing infrastructure or providing social housing, the rules under which local government toil have not been adjusted to match.
Quite simply, the balance is out of whack.
To restore the balance, we need to think of Government in New Zealand as a single system, where top down decision making and resourcing meets bottom up experience and democratic, or community, direction.
We know this works because in the rare instances in our history where it has been tried, it has delivered brilliantly.
Take the Covid-19 crisis as an example. The necessity of having to put aside our differences in the face the pandemic meant we rolled up our collective sleeves and got on with the job of furloughing five million Kiwis in their homes for close to two months.
By teaming up through the various levels of lockdown, both tiers of government ensured that essential lifeline services such as our drinking water, rubbish collection and waste water services continued to be provided, while at the same time those most vulnerable in our communities got the targeted care they needed.
Once out of lockdown, hearing the infrastructure-led recovery call from central government, councils have worked at full tilt to ensure they’re either contributing by bringing their investment programmes forward, or by providing regulatory services that enable development.
So, that brings me back to the difficult conversation that we need to have about the future of local government.
Why can’t we have a Covid-like partnership that delivers for New Zealanders all the time? This isn’t about amalgamation or re-drawing the council boundary lines, but how to we meaningfully work together to deliver our respective strengths.
This is something we touched on in the LGNZ 2020 General Election Manifesto on lgnz.co.nz, which called for an appropriate balance between local and central decision-making, something LGNZ call ‘democratic well-being.’
It will take major compromise – and a genuine focus on understanding each other’s strengths – from central government, but also from councils.
Change is always uncomfortable but we’re up for it. Is central government, and even more importantly are the public, ready to have this difficult conversation?