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Who decides?

Written by Peter McKinlay on April 15th, 2012.      0 comments

The new UK Localism Act suggests that the UK Government may have accepted, finally, that local communities can take local decisions without the world coming to an end (but the acceptance may be conditional - there is still a great deal of opportunity for ministerial intervention).

The New Zealand Government has decided that it's time to get local government concentrating on core services. The current purpose of promoting economic, cultural, social and environmental well-being will be repealed, and instead councils will be required to focus on the provision of “good quality local infrastructure, public services and regulatory functions at the least possible cost to households and business”.

Common to both England and New Zealand - and a number of other Commonwealth jurisdictions - is the idea that somehow central government has both the responsibility, and the tools, to get local government to do exactly what it requires. In New Zealand, local government watchers are scratching their heads over what are local public services, and what does least cost to households and business actually mean? A number are concerned this could become a feast for public lawyers with the risk unclear legislation could encourage resort to judicial review.

Is this really what we want? And do we understand how to make local government properly accountable?

Why don't we try the alternative of accepting that communities differ, preferences differ and people should be allowed to express those. It does mean a bit more care, and it does mean moving from rule-bound consultation (in New Zealand, applying a High Court decision based on how an airport authority should deal with a major airline - not really the same as a council working with its citizens). Instead, shouldn't we mandate a process which requires councils to work with their communities as they develop the initiatives they want to put in place, and find user-friendly ways of helping people understand what they're proposing to do, what it will cost, and how it should be paid for. Think, for example, of participatory budgeting, or community governance as it is starting to develop in a number of different jurisdictions. And let individual councils decide what is best practice for their own communities, and face the electoral consequences if they get it wrong.

One possible positive in the latest round of New Zealand reform proposals is the suggestion that the very detailed compliance requirements surrounding compulsory 10-year plus financial and activity planning should be relaxed somewhat. These provisions were put in place by a previous government which thought that really detailed information compliant with international financial reporting standards was the way to go.

Few were surprised when actual practice suggested compliance was crowding out the strategic leadership role of local government, and most ratepayers could hardly understand the accountability documents themselves.

What's really going on? Are we witnessing some kind of deep concern in higher tiers of government over promoting (allowing?) local democracy - letting people take decisions about what should happen in their own place?

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