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Is devolution on the agenda?

Written by Peter McKinlay on February 22nd, 2017.      0 comments

Anyone following local government through the media recently may have come across the term demarcation zone. on close acquaintance, it is shorthand for a potentially radical change in the role of local government.
It's a proposal which has come out of work by a Wellington based
public policy think tank which has been looking at how to deal with issues of poverty. Briefly it argues that the conventional central government approaches to intervention have failed a number of New Zealand communities (some of the evidence for this is in the recent Productivity Commission report More Effective Social Services). Drawing on experience with special economic zones, the think tank argues the conventional rules  and practices for managing social service expenditure should be set to one side,  and resources devolved to the local community - details are slim  but it appears that the idea is for a group of respected local leaders to oversee  a new approach to social service spending.
The proposed demarcation zones are the districts of three local authorities all of which are relatively impoverished (Far North, Rotorua and Gisborne). Although the proposed role for the individual local authorities is unclear, it does seem that they would be expected to play an integral part if only because of their relative capability, administrative strength and representative role on behalf of their communities.
There are echoes of the devolution agenda of the present UK government the focus of which is on devolving responsibility to groups of local authorities  for significant areas of public services including employment and skills related services and in some instances  expenditure on health services.
For an initiative like this, implementation is clearly  something which needs to be well thought through, carefully managed and well able  to provide  a better service  to people in need. Even with the years which the UK government has invested in developing its devolution proposals,  there are still significant question marks. For New Zealand with no history of this type of devolution, the demarcation zone proposal  is very much a leap of faith.
Put that to one side (it's going to be closely scrutinised by officials) and think of the role of local government. In the UK local government has long had a significant role in the delivery of major social services, with funding provided by central government. The past few years of austerity  have highlighted the risk of this involvement. Government has been drastically reducing funding  but the service obligations have remained unchanged. Currently social care (care for older people including both in home and rest home care) is under extraordinary stress. Perhaps as many as 1 million older people are not receiving care to which they are entitled, many care home operators are exiting the industry or going into liquidation because they cannot manage on the now inadequate funding they receive and the National Health Service faces an increasing problem of beds occupied by older people  because there is nowhere for them to go if they are discharged.
This highlights at least a couple of questions for New Zealand councils which might be tempted by the demarcation zone proposal (leaving aside any questions about  capability and implementation). The first is should councils take the risk  that a government may devolve responsibility and associated funding  and then at some later stage reduce  or remove the funding while leaving the responsibility in place? The present UK experience, and the approach which New Zealand's government has often taken to funding services delivered by third parties, both suggest that this is a very real risk and one which should only be taken on after careful consideration if at all.
The second question is what is the proper role of local government in any event? The dilemma which councils in the UK now face is that they should be acting as advocates on behalf of their communities to ensure they receive the level and standard of service to which they are entitled, but too often  it's the very councils themselves who are failing to deliver. The fact that it is a consequence of under-funding on the part of government is virtually irrelevant in terms of the conflict which councils face and the options they have available to them.
Council should certainly be taking a much closer interest in the nature and quality of the services which their communities receive and the performance of those agencies responsible for service delivery.  Rather than seeking devolution, with all the risk and responsibility which goes with that, wouldn't it make better sense for local government to develop the advocacy and leadership skills needed to bring government agencies and others together, ensure effective coordination,  and play a lead role in determining what services are required and making sure they are delivered.


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