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David Hargreaves argues that the current push to devolve central government powers to local authorities should not be countenanced - but there's a danger it will be with an election looming

David Hargreaves argues that the current push to devolve central government powers to local authorities should not be countenanced - but there's a danger it will be with an election looming

By David Hargreaves

Judging by what might have been read in the mainstream media over the past couple of days, the most pressing issues for Local Government New Zealand at its annual conference in Wellington have been banning fireworks and whether or not the precious berms of Auckland should be used as car parks.

Huge, temple pounding decisions involved there no doubt. But the LGNZ has a few other things on its mind too - not least grand ambitions of a wholesale takeover by local councils of many of the things the central Government does at the moment.

That this concerted push is going on seems to have largely gone unnoticed by the general public.

Hey, New Zealand, wake up. We need to say NO to this, right now.

Under the cute and inoffensive title of 'Localism', LGNZ, assisted by lobbyists NZ Initiative, is determinedly pushing for what amounts to a large-scale local takeover of central government functions. And it is, very cleverly, targeting the campaign ahead of the 2020 election so that it can get maximum leverage and attempt to push something on to the people of New Zealand presumably in the next term of Government.

This might actually happen unless strong opinions are expressed now to nip it in the bud.

I've already opined on this campaign, last year when it was first launched, and then again earlier this year.  But it ain't going away. Oh, no. And it won't. Not with the backing of strident, focused, and persistent lobbyists like NZ Initiative.

I put forward various arguments against 'Localism' in those articles, so, won't repeat the gist of those, other than to say I reckon they all still apply. Here, I shall move on to other things.

First up, I do heartily suggest you read the discussion document that LGNZ has released. They are calling for public submissions - and I really do urge people to get into action and state their views. 

Look. You might think what is being proposed is a good idea and want to support it. Okay, great, go for it. Support it. Democracy is important. I don't think it's a good idea. And I don't support it.

In essence local councils would be put in charge of a whole range of things they don't currently control, including health and employment. They would be given the power to tax and to levy. And, in what I see as potentially the most toxic suggestion, councils might be given the power to go directly to the government and apply to take over the running of a central government function in their area (and receive funding for it).

No doubt there's some pretty 'interesting' ideas in that discussion document.

What I don't see is detailed discussion, at all, of the current state of local government management in this country. Do we think it's good? Any problems with it, at all? Is it an even standard right throughout the country?

Nor do I see in depth analysis of where exactly the expertise is going to come from in all these local authorities to take on the new responsibilities currently handled by central government. 

Consider for a moment that we range in size from the behemoth Auckland Super City Council overseeing nearly 1.7 million people to district councils responsible for populations of under 10,000 - and no, I'm not going to mention any of these by name lest they think they are being picked on. But this is helpful

Do we think there's likely to be some difference in the levels of ability and resources to do functions between the big, big councils and the little tiddlers?

In my view if LGNZ and the NZ Initiative are deadly serious (as they certainly appear to be) about pushing for these changes, they need to first lay out how the standard of local government and governance is going to be improved, and also how that can be consistently applied around the country. That needs to be done FIRST before any remote thought is given to devolving central government responsibilities.

To be honest, I would say good luck to LGNZ and the NZ Initiative if they could indeed prove that the standard of governance at local government level is up to it, on a consistent basis, around the country. I don't see it from where I'm looking.

One of the first potential consequences I think we might see from such a move to devolution would be marked divergences in the abilities of the councils to do the job required - and subsequently therefore in the economic development in their regions.

Surely such a new system would be a heaven-sent recipe for the Auckland Super City to charge ahead and become the Republic of Auckland, with its sheer weight of resources and funding? Whither the minnows? Wither they will. Surely this is a recipe for uneven regional development?

I think as a country we are far too small to even remotely consider this kind of proposal. Bigger countries, yes, I can see it. But come on, we are not yet five million people. Keeping an economy of such a small size rolling is not beyond the capacity of our central government. But expecting little minnow councils to take on the running of core government functions? Recipe for disaster.

When you start bandying around terms like 'decentralisation' and 'removing constraints' it sounds seductive. 

But it becomes the question of being careful what you wish for. 

Clearly we do not live in a perfect country. We would, however, live in a far less perfect country if 'localism' was even contemplated. Just say no. Say it loud. Say it now. 

*This article was first published in our email for paying subscribers early on Tuesday morning. See here for more details and how to subscribe.

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So we are being asked to give Councils the ability to lobby for revenue, and expecting them to actually deliver or meet some sort of target? Or are we just likely to see Councils spend a whole lot more on lobbying.

NZ is about the same size as Melbourne. There is no need for provincial fiefdoms.

Terrible branding and I wonder who came up with this. "Localism" is a term from the ugly side of surfing culture where outsiders are dealt with by any means necessary.

Depends what it looks like. Central Government seems to want to make changes round the edges .. councils are placed to do this with more impact, if given the power.

Let councils receive a percentage of their resident's income tax and let them have powers to set income tax rates. This will increase competition n improve governance quality.

Have you had any dealings with councils?

They're utterly inept as far as I can tell. I wouldn't give them and ounce more power.

I live in Christchurch so I know the feeling. The problem is there are too many un-elected officials. poor quality candidates, poor voter turn out and old people voting for ridiculous/nutty candidates.

Capital gains tax gets knocked back because of the bungled handling of it. So taxes are being squeezed in from every angle now. Local Government is performing poorly in many areas so giving them more power to screw up isn't going to help. You only have to look at the mismanagement of Auckland's rates/budget and neglect of the transport system.

This is a move for more tax and central Government can shift the blame.

There is another risk that's worse than more tax, and that's less tax. The risk of regulatory arbitrage could lead to disaster. If regions compete on the basis of taxation it will cause unusual changes to local economies. This happens a lot in the US where there are differing taxes based on state. It causes people to leave states with high tax.

Either outcome can be a disaster.

Councils are terrible to deal with and LGNZ is an apologist for them.

If I was the dictator of NZ I'd fire half of the staff in every council around the country and there'd be no loss of service.

Only half?

Absolutely no.
For a country of 5 million we already have 3 layers of government - its absurd.
We hardly have enough quality management & politicians for central government
It should be the other way around. Force local government to:
a) To amalgamate into unitary authorities
b) Undertake business case and impact assessments on all their spending
c) Spend on essentials first & then nice to haves

"Spend on essentials first & then nice to haves"

This was the case for a brief time (2012 to 14 May 2019) but now the Councils have the Four Well-beings as their sole purpose: social, cultural, environmental, economic. Show me a human activity and I will be able to clip it in under either or both of the first two. So kiss bye-bye to any ruthless, flint-eyed appraisal of Spend.

It's Soft Spend - to infinity and beyond.

And as the intellectual horsepower of most Councillors (let alone Staff) rarely approaches that of Buzz Lightyear, there's no real way outta this conundrum.


Of course the argument is meant to be along the lines of Swiss localism, but your 100% right, giving more power and money to local councils is like giving an addict heroin, or a baby a gun, or a heroin addict baby a gun.

Generally local & Regional Councils perform between poor & awful as the low voter turnout demonstrates juts how much faith there is in councils abilities to deliver. At current voter turnout levels I consider many councils cannot claim legitimacy so my first requirement for an elected council would be 70% turnout, next removal of the power of general competence dished out by the Clarke Govt which is repsonsible for much council wastful spending on non core services. Finally require councilors to resign and seek re election if they propose rate increases beyond CPI and no councilor salary increases for term of office.

Yes. Agree. After all local government is full of qualified people - just look how well they do with water....
Also, central government has a mandate and twice the % of voting turnout.
And local is not better.
NZ is full of quaint, under-funded volunteering type services that are inadequate and that in other OECD countries are fully funded and for which central government is responsible. If we want to attract people from those countries, increasing amateur hour ain't going to cut it.

I'm hearing lots of negatives but that doesn't solve the current issues - that not only is local government useless, but so too is central government.
One of our biggest issues is the lack of & respect of any form of leadership what-so-ever. It appears now the masses are 'educated' & that everyone knows what's best for themselves, that they don't have to take instruction from anyone or anything. This is not how it works. This is how it doesn't work.
The real issue (not being discussed) is that we (over 50% of us) are relationally dysfunctional on all levels, have no respect for anyone or anything, especially our leaders. Why is this? Because over the past 50 years, the standards of leadership have been systematically dismantled by the pc brigade. Driven by the socialist media, tertiary education, state & local bureaucrats & their sympathisers, the competance of governance at all levels (and in most Western Nations) is folding up like paper being burnt. Not only do the people not trust & respect their leaders but the leaders do not respect (look after) the people they are purported to serve.
Note: Of the world's 200 & something countries there are only about 30-40 that are evenly remotely civilised, as in like here in NZ or Australia. The rest are run by gangsters & thugs with guns & violence & fear. And even though we still have the best systems & the best people in the world, we are losing our advantages (and they are many) to heavies like China, who behave as I've described above, & worse.
The issue is two-fold - we are still the best societies to live in (as witnessed by the huge & unsustainable immigration figures) but we are in-fighting to such an extent (on all levels) that we are destroying what has taken the best part of 1,000 years to get right. Worse, we can't seem to see it. Are we all blind? Am I the only one who can see this? Hello, is there anyone else on sensible land still alive.

Good points but the same underlying principles govern all human behaviour, and on the spectrum of where NZ sits relative to other countries we are either moving up or down this spectrum. To think nothing or to do nothing is the same as doing the wrong thing, hence small relativities matter.

In that regard all entities, in this case local vs central Govts. try to grow the size of their organisation, after all the bigger the city or Govt. department, the bigger the pay packet and prestige.

Hence Central Govt. does not want hand over anything to local Govt. as it reduces its power, while local Govt. think it is a great idea for the opposite reason.

The fight they are having between themselves is one of institutional behaviour.

While we are thinking about this is about value for money/efficiency issue, they are not.

On a local efficiency and fairness of spending the money where it is earnt issue, I think there's a very good case for more money to come back from central Govt to local Govt, BUT not at the expense of bureaucratic institutional growth of local Govt.

Local Councils need to be stripped back to their basic core functions and given the resources to carry that out. But with words like 'wellbeing' in council policy and faux states of emergency, I would be giving them less money.

Lot of douche bags who know nothing about local government commenting here.

Civility please. Everyone has experience with local government and it's negative for a lot of us. When the topic comes to councils everyone I know is very unhappy with them.

Perhaps another dimension to this argument is the difference in the way that central government and local councils fund debt, and the consequences of those differences.

The only people less qualified to run the country than those in the Labour/Greens parties, are locally elected councillors. As we've seen in Christchurch, you can give them a blank slate to work with and they will still screw it up in ways no one thought possible. You want them to do the same to the country?

Almost 2 years ago,part of the base track round the Mount had to be closed due to a large slip. Steep(temporary!) wooden steps were built as a temporary measure. This makes it very hard for some-a young mum on her own with a pushchair-and simply impossible for the less able to walk all the way round and for both locals and visitors,the base track is an integral part of the Mount experience.
Now,the Council tells us that the cost has blown out and perhaps the steps will become permanent,who knows? If the council can't even fix this issue,why would any sane person give them much greater powers.

I too rather like the idea of greater local accountability,but not until we find a way to find much more competent Councillors.

Totally agree. Councils in this country just don't have the capability and mind set to take on these new responsibilities. They're still chafing at the devolution of the 80's. NZ is the envy on many countries including Australia in terms of its relatively flat governance hierarchy, and ability to make uniform decisions at the top that are immediately implemented (for better or worse). And it goes against other work in progress such as the current templates being rolled out by the Ministry for the Environment to standardise District Plans around the country - in recognition of the wide variability of current quality....

I agree. I get tired of LG's incessant moaning about 'unfunded mandates' and 'regulatory creep' - why not take a majority of their work/responsibilities away, as per this PC recommendations on the 'three waters' functions;

If you strip out those core operational and infrastructure works costs (perhaps give it to this new Infrastructure Ministry), then all that remains for Territorial Authorities to argue with ratepayers about is expenditure on local roads, parks/reserves, sidewalks/bike paths and local amenities (i.e., libraries, street lighting/landscapes, swim pools and sports grounds/stadiums).

It would be a far more transparent property rates budgeting process in that the budget would only include the "nice to haves" - none of which is influenced by 'regulatory creep' from central government. And central government might have to face up to the fact that population growth has real costs associated with it.