Reversal Needed of 1989 Local Government Reforms [2]

[This is an unplanned second part continuing on the theme of local government, particularly its relevance to transport service provision. In the first article a general examination of the impacts of the 1989 reforms was taken. This article is more about general shortcomings of local government outside of any particular timeframe.]

It’s worth taking a big look at local government in general; “how did we get here”? Local governance is what makes sense across a city, town or rural district. It enables the central government to devolve its powers to elected local bodies to carry out specific functions that pertain to a particular area. Residential neighbourhood and service functions are clear examples of this. Local governance of this form operates purely by the virtue of the delegation of duties from the government and therefore is purely at the whim of politicians in Wellington to decide what the appropriate delegations should be and to prescribe them in legislation and regulation. This is a rather different situation from state government that occurs in a number of countries, for example in Australia and the US, where in those particular cases the state governments have the right to make their own laws and the central government (federal as it is called in those nations) has only limited powers.

It obviously made a lot of sense for government to devolve powers to local councils for the provision of infrastructure and services that are not part of a national network and need people on the ground in towns and cities to work out solutions that are specific and appropriate to that location and according to the particular details of individual properties. So that is one of the strengths of local governance. Where it has fallen down is where the national or even city wide interest starts to take a back seat in governance affairs. People see an opportunity to create a niche that serves their own interests first and foremost, and politicians respond accordingly. Therefore one of the major failings of local governance is that it readily creates social stratification / division in communities, often on the basis of financial wealth or lack thereof. This also leads to councils picking and choosing what services they want to provide. They are notoriously bad, at least in NZ, at providing social services, in the sense that some entitled populations and councillors representing them claim these should be the responsibility of central government, which is really another way of saying they don’t want to provide the services themselves. Christchurch for example does have its own portfolio of public housing, now under the umbrella of a community housing provider, but there are numerous other examples around NZ of other councils which have sold off social housing stock to the government and other providers.

One thing that was remarked on in the first article concerns the type of people who are attracted to local government. There has definitely been a change in this over some decades, from the times in which council’s roles were a bit less than now. That was an era in which most councillors were part timers and councils were less business focused than they currently are. Local governance in NZ in general has evolved particularly since the 1980s to take on more responsibility and the councils as organisations have grown and now employ highly paid chief executives (instead of town clerks) and emphasise a greater division between the roles of councillors (governance) and staff (operations). At the same time, the councillors themselves found their workload had become more like a full time occupation and their pay increased accordingly, although some still have outside work at times. The consensus is that the role of local governance has changed a great deal in that time, with councils responsible for more things than they were in the past. However there is also reason to be concerned that councils are being handed work that central government has done in the past without the ability to get the same resourcing and focus as Wellington has managed in the past. In the first article in particular it was noted that the role of regional councils especially had risen as a result of the restructuring done in 1989 and that this was a key focus of the governments in that era in a way that was more extreme than what had been seen up until that time.

It is particularly notable that the natural environment of New Zealand has been greatly impacted by the changed local governance structures since 1989. It is evident that governments of around that era seized on an opportunity to localise the environmental management of the country in what could be characterised as a sell out to local commercial interests and in the longer term to the great detriment of environmental health of New Zealand. The recent situations of storm damage especially in the Hawkes Bay and Gisborne districts are highlighting this concern in a major way since it can be inferred that a lot of this damage has happened as a result of decisions made in the 1980s and 1990s to transfer a lot of environmental management to regional or unitary councils from central government agencies. As it has been noted above that local governance is generally dominated by people with financial wealth, it is hardly surprising that the same scenario has become prevalent in the takeup of environmental management by regional councils. Since 1990 in particular, apart from the issue of commercial forestry managed marginal land in the back country of Gisborne and other areas previously remarked upon, another example is the explosion in irrigation development in a number of regions including Waikato, Canterbury, Otago and Westland, with the result of water resources becoming over-allocated and polluted by farm runoff as well.

It is against this backdrop of there being too much focus at times on devolving “local” matters to territorial and regional councils, that the Government is conducting its review of local governance arrangements at the present time. A notable focus of the term of the present Labour government has been reversing numerous devolutions that took place during the 1980s and 1990s in particular as a result of the extreme economic rationalism mentality that prevailed during those times, and in which New Zealanders sought a change from the FPP electoral system to the proportionality of MMP for the national elections, and towards STV type systems for local governance (the latter is still optional as individual councils have been given the power to opt in or out themselves). Three Waters is the latest example of this but there has been strong backlash against these examples of centralisation. However an appropriate balance must be found between the two forms of government and the Three Waters policy, depending on how it is enacted, is clearly a pushback against the 1980s trend in particular of territorial councils become large multi faceted entities and taking over infrastructure provision they have been ill suited to govern. Transport is another infrastructure that should be taken out of the direct political hands of councils and put (back) into separately managed entities and this has been clearly successful in the Auckland case and their model should be spread around the country to ensure it is being properly managed and is less susceptible to political pressures to focus on the more wealthy populations who want the impetus to be on the provision of greater and faster roads and consideration of the social needs of the wider community minimised.

Christchurch did have its own Transport Board which was designed primarily to bridge over the boundaries of different local authorities notwithstanding the efforts by the City Council to take over CTB throughout its nearly hundred year history and the regional transport functions of Ecan since. This of course is one of the major failings of local government in that it becomes too focused on its own interests which can be taken over just a ward or two at times, and fails to account for the wider needs of a city or the national interest. This is one clear reason for this blog to oppose the election of councillors from individual wards and prefer for them to be elected city wide. Apart from making it more feasible to use STV for local council elections, ward structures are unnecessary divisions through neighbourhoods and communities. They are much favoured by political groupings that stand in council elections because it is relatively easy to create a ward that reflects a particular socio-economic group and therefore enables a councillor to focus on the interests of that group more than any other group, or in other words create a power niche for the entitled and wealthy neighbourhoods over others. Making the wards larger or abolishing ward boundaries altogether is a great way of eliminating stratifications between different neighbourhoods because it becomes very difficult to make a case for differential treatment for one particular area over another in the same ward. This leads naturally to the suggestion that smaller governance entities are those which lead or contribute to the entrenchment of wealth and privilege in society the most, and that therefore there is some natural case for the amalgamation of general councils into bigger entities as did happen in 1989. That’s fairly certain; and did happen more recently in Auckland in 2010, where it was implemented in quite a good way that has preserved the democratic aspect of local governance, although the continuation of wards is not a part of that However a strong case also exists where there is a noted failure in the provision of, for example, infrastructure, to devolve that into separate local entities, which in Auckland has been achieved especially with Three Waters and transport, respectively in Watercare and Auckland Transport. So this blog will be scrutinising government proposals with interest.

At any rate the three part series on how to fix our public transport is still in the works but it is coming soon. However one of the parts focuses on the Government’s current public transport governance proposals and this needs further investigation before that part can be written. These are recent proposals and not especially clear at this time.