16 September 2015
It is disappointing but not surprising that local residents turned down a proposal to restructure Hawkes Bay governance when the debate around amalgamation pitched administrative cost savings against loss of community identity and history, says Stephen Selwood CEO of the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development.
Whilst operational savings and limiting rates increases are always worthwhile objectives, the real opportunity from strengthened governance is lifting the economic performance of the regions more jobs, sustainable development and greater prosperity.
By empowering a regional mayor and council to interface directly with central government and business, champion the region, set a single strategic direction and implement that direction with a consolidated asset base and specialised labour force, regions can attract back growth and regenerate their communities.
This message was lost in the debate because local government purpose, incentives, funding, investment and legal frameworks are misaligned.
Minister Bennett has asked councils to rededicate themselves to jobs and sustained growth, but the Local Government Act makes no such provision. Under the Act, Councils are there to enable democratic local decision making and deliver infrastructure, regulate and provide community services.
The principal local government laws the Resource Management Act, the Local Government Act and the Land Transport Management Act require them to conform to a maze of statutory processes while they face intense political scrutiny to keep rates increases to a minimum. Consequently local government attention is much less focussed on delivering strong local economies and building vibrant communities but more on administration, managing negative effects, balancing the budget, and dealing with the costs rather than the opportunities of growth.
Attempts to change governance structures without incentivising councils to go for growth, giving them the funding tools to implement direction and aligning planning, regulatory and wider implementation laws will not work.
Whats needed is a first principles evaluation of the role of local government, of local government structures and funding and of the legal framework in which they operate.
Unless the whole local government system is improved, regions will continue to struggle with population aging and decline, stagnant growth, poor economic performance and loss of jobs and opportunities to the big cities.
We need a strong partnership between central and local government, business, iwi and our communities if we want our regions to grow, but strong partnerships require aligned governance and leadership.
Supporting regions with appropriate funding tools and incentives, effective planning and regulatory frameworks and good governance will not only set the priorities right for local communities, it will provide residents and voters with the confidence that change will lead to a better outcome, Selwood says.