Time for a local message for national politicians?

In the sidelines of Britain’s frenetic commentary on its Brexit vote has been a debate about the “regions” and their councils. Was London, the capital, too up-itself? Is Wellington?

Local government experts Peter McKinlay and Adrienne von Tunzelmann in their monthly commentary on Thursday quoted Britain’s New Local Government Network director Simon Parker on “the deep social divisions” the referendum exposed: “London sticks out like sore thumb, an island of Remainers in a sea of Brexit.”

McKinlay and von Tunzelmann said there is not “the same concentration of disadvantage” here but “there is evidence of the same phenomenon of a growing divide between those who have prospered and those who feel left behind”, which they called “creeping exclusion”.

Winston Peters’ Northland 2015 by-election win was an indicator.

But they also see an “opportunity” for “people to share in decision-making on matters that affect them”. And they argue “the evidence increasingly favours bottom-up initiatives led locally, with local government typically being best placed” to do that.

Few, if any, at next week’s Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) conference would disagree with this plug for “subsidiarity”: decisions being made at the level nearest those most affected.

But, as McKinlay and von Tunzelmann wrote in May, Labour’s drastic 1986 council shakeup “affirmed the ‘right’ of central government to intervene in local government”.

Ministers do. As the current housing crisis developed, they caned councils, then legislated to force them to change their plans, to cut charges to developers, to speed consent processes and much else.

Bill English on Sunday on Q&A again blamed councils for Auckland’s house problems. (As if migration, foreign buyers, low interest rates and cheap credit had no effect.)

And National MPs and members constantly attack rate levels, implying inefficiency or profligacy. The cabinet produced a “better local services” scheme to prod councils to share experts and services and so be more efficient and effective. The then Local Government Minister Paula Bennett told the 2015 LGNZ conference she would “force” them to.

Ministers in June imposed “snapshots”, a performance rating of councils based on a partial set of indicators, including debt level and affordability, consent timeframes, state of the roads and water quality.

This cut across LGNZ’s own “excellence programme”, developed out of its published reports of constituents’ views, launched last week with 21 of the 78 councils as foundation members. This covers leadership and strategy, financial decision-making, service delivery and asset management and communication and engagement — and tips on how to improve.

This initiative reflects the shift LGNZ has been trying to make from being central government servants, mere deliverers of services, to making real decisions about what services to provide in response to their constituents.

Tiny Gore, for example, has developed a heritage complex, with gallery and museum, now a tourist attraction. The council is working with retailers to keep its main street alive. Four-term mayor Tracy Hicks says “relationships” are the key.

That is subsidiarity in action. A few years back ministers were telling councils libraries and museums and the like were not core business.

Will ministers listen to councils?

Current Local Government Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga, a former councillor, has deferred the “snapshots” after rural and provincial mayors grumped at him (though he also asserts its value to ratepayers). He has tramped the country to “listen to” councils. A conciliatory sort, Lotu-Iiga says sharing services is voluntary.

He says he agrees with subsidiarity: “We need local government as much as local government needs central government.”

And English has stumped up finance to help councils understand water better, to establish a backstop agency for natural hazards and to help tourist meccas like hyper-expensive Queenstown build necessary infrastructure.

But for the inescapably local adaptation to climate change effects councils are left with the bill, plus fiendishly difficult planning and property rights issues if they take anticipatory measures. Guidance has been limited, though is now being updated.

Climate change is one challenge canvassed in a discussion paper to be launched at LGNZ’s conference. Others include urbanisation, regional population shifts and ageing and the substantial likely effects on local economies, stewardship of biodiversity and freshwater, the impact of changes in work, equality and social cohesion.

To prepare for such longer-term challenges, LGNZ’s paper says there must be “broad civic participation” involving different levels of communities and including youth to get “intergenerational justice”. That will need new communications strategies.

A discussion paper is for discussion. But if this sort of long-term thinking turns into local action over time ministers might find it useful to get in behind.