A revolution in local government?

The review of local government over the next two years is much bigger than many people realise.

The remit is to start with a fresh look at what local government might and should do, in official words its "roles, functions and partnerships".

Form then follows function as structures are considered. Representation and governance and funding and financing will be examined as well.

The previous revolution in local government was in 1989. It was not just about amalgamations as, for example, St Kilda, Green Island, Port Chalmers, Mosgiel, Silverpeaks and a small corner of Maniototo being tied in with Dunedin.

Rather, councillors were supposed to become the policy and budget decision-makers and the strategists. The "doing" was the purview of the staff under the chief executive.

Which particular road should be resealed or what specific pipes replaced has nothing to do with the elected members.

Catchment boards disappeared and regional councils were set up with, largely, environmental tasks.

What might come of the current review, with its stated aim to create organisations and processes supposedly fit for the next 30 years?

Outcomes have been deliberately left wide open. That is the way it should be.

The interim review is due as soon as September, the draft report in September next year and the final findings in April 2023. Given the scope of the inquiry, timing is tight.

In two fundamental ways, however, the shape of local government is already being set. The replacement of the Resource Management Act with three acts and the planned "Three Waters" arrangements take two large and longstanding functions from local government and local oversight.

This fits the current Government’s centralisation inclination, as seen in the demise of district health boards and polytechnic amalgamation.

There are always strong arguments for national consistency for the likes of district planning rules. And many councils face financial trouble as their old sewerage, water and stormwater pipes fail.

But there is also much to be said for the rights of communities to make their own planning calls. Queenstown Lakes has particular landscape needs, and, as another illustration, the Clutha community decided it would be more permissive than Dunedin for industry in rural areas.

Communities also, surely, are responsible for those basic Three Waters renewals and bear that responsibility. The issues are making out-of-sight assets a priority and finding the money required.

Economies of scale and pooling of expertise have distinct advantages, and more co-operation among councils can also achieve a lot in some areas.

And do the people of Clutha really want various local decisions made from Dunedin or, for that matter, Christchurch to be the centre for important Dunedin matters?

Diversity is seen as a strength in nature and in society. In contrast, too much centralisation restricts opportunities for different and innovative ways for tackling problems.

Smaller councils can also be more frugal and much more understanding of local needs.

Somehow, decisions should be made at the appropriate levels.

Funding is crucial. Property rates make some sense for the basics of rubbish and water and sewerage. But other demands on councils are ever-expanding without commensurate revenue sources. No doubt, the likes of a share of GST or taxpayer funding of some functions will be considered.

The review needs to be given a fair crack. While it is meant to be "independent", we shall see. It has been set up by Labour and will require strong political will for anything to happen.

Any change will be difficult both to agree on and implement because of so many vested interests and so much inertia.

Nevertheless, in this regard, New Zealand is more capable of radical change than many democracies. It has but one house of Parliament and no federal system. At present, it even has one-party dominance.

In 1989, pre-MMP, New Zealand achieved a revolution in local government. Is another one coming?


Good to see ODT draw attention to this issue. I think the present government is presently in the process of abolishing local government, not merely ‘reviewing’ or ‘reforming’ it. Local government, without some degree of territorial sovereignty and the right to own and manage its own assets, is not ‘government’ at all but merely local administration.

This Government policy decision should be viewed with he puapua in mind. it could mean extracting powers from councils so that for example tribal water rights can easily be implemented. He puapua also points to tribal control of resource management.

He Puapua ( which involves enacting the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) is already well underway in NZ local government and elsewhere. See here: https://www.magic.co.nz/home/news/2021/04/peter-williams--plans-for-a-co...