Local government is ready to sit down and talk with central government about improving the sector’s performance, provided policymakers in the Beehive come to the table as a partner, not as a parent.
That was the theme that emerged from the launch of our latest report, The Local Manifesto: Restoring local government accountability, which took place in Wellington on Monday. The high level event hosted Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel and Chief Executive of the Wellington City Council Kevin Lavery.
The report was warmly welcomed by both, which was brave of them to say because it contained a number of brickbats for councils. In particular, it criticised the sector’s poor engagement with communities, and the questionable nature of councils’ spending decisions.
Then again, the report highlighted one of the sector’s long-standing problems. Many of the issues the public regularly take councils to task for stem from the legislative framework in which they operate.
It is little known, for example, that the bulk of local government’s regulatory powers come from 30 different statutes, and this excludes the Local Government Act. And while central government is happy to pass on tasks, it is far less forthcoming with funding.
The end result is that communities have no idea as to who is responsible for the local policies that govern them, or how to hold decision-makers to account. The situation is not helped by central government involving itself in purely local matters such as dog control and campervans.
The Initiative’s solution is simple: make councils answerable to communities they serve. The caveat is that councils need to lift their game by proving they are wise spenders of public money, and that their actions are guided by community will.
It is a tall ask, but one both Dalziel and Lavery seem willing to take. The much taller ask is on central government to cede a significant chunk of decision-making power to local councils.
We would urge central government to take them at their word. For the past 160 years policymakers have increasingly tried to fix local government by centralising power in Wellington, and for just as long they has been disappointed with the results. It is time to try a different approach, one built on partnership not paternalism.