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Why must local councillors be so parochial?

Written by Peter McKinlay on November 23rd, 2011.      0 comments

It's a question which is coming more and more to the fore as metropolitan governance comes over the horizon, with its emphasis on the balance between regionwide and district level decision-making.

There are a couple of things which we "know" about metropolitan regions. First, getting their governance and performance "right" is going to be crucial for the economic and social well-being not just of the regions themselves but of entire national economies. Next, this means being able to make and implement decisions on major regionwide initiatives (Infrastructure, land-use planning etc) which will impact differentially. Some parts of the region will welcome these decisions and others will be opposed because of what they see as the impact on their local communities.
This brings into focus the role of the local councillor elected to advance the interests of his or her community which may often be seen as being in conflict with the regional interest. This was the theme of a number of submitters to the Royal Commission on the Governance of Auckland the report of which records “territorial authorities were also criticised by a number of submitters for parochialism and inability to work together in the interests of the region.”

The Commission itself, in considering possible governance structures, commented “Fresh blood and fresh ideas will be required to move on from the region’s history of parochialism." and went on to recommend a governance structure which completely removed the territorial level of local government within the Auckland region.

It is an issue which is going to come up every time governance arrangements in metropolitan regions come under scrutiny. It's very easy to take the default position that local councillors are indeed parochial in the sense of being narrow-minded, self-interested and unable to recognise the wider regional interest. It's also usually wrong, and completely misses the point of why people put themselves forward for local government. Normally it's because they are passionate about their area and they want to put something back into it including protecting what they most value about it.

Surely this is exactly what we want from people in local government - a passionate commitment to doing the best they can for the people and the area which they represent?

So let's describe this in a way which recognises what is actually going on; I prefer the term "local patriotism". And this is not just about the niceties of language, or being kind to local councillors. It's very much about asking the right question when it comes to designing governance at a regional level.

If you think what you're dealing with is parochialism and narrow mindedness, then your policy solutions lie in greater regulation, restriction, and possibly restructuring to remove structures you see as parochial. The results, if you rely on regulation and restriction, are likely to include significantly greater transaction costs and more drawnout decision-making. If you choose restructuring instead then you face a different issue; the risk of simply replicating in the new structure the problems you thought you were removing by abolishing the old. Toronto and Ottawa provide examples of what can happen when a number of councils are amalgamated into a metropolitan level council. Both have had real problems of dysfunctionality as the ward-based structures put in place simply replicated around a larger council table the parochial battles which had previously been fought out between different councils (It remains to be seen whether the same problem will also plague the new Auckland Council which is also ward-based).

And which ever route you go, you also risk undermining local energy, local commitment and local democracy by abolishing the structures through which those had been expressed.

Treat the issue as one of "local patriotism", and the challenge becomes how to preserve the best of local patriotism, including local energy and commitment, while still enabling necessary decisions to be taken at a regional level. The solution lies in the design of structures, making sure that local issues continue to be handled locally, whilst insulating regionwide decision-making against the risk of local interests prevailing. That it can be done is evidenced by the obvious success of the restructuring of Metropolitan London.

Understanding that you are dealing with "local patriotism" and not parochialism is going to be crucial in getting the right structures in place within our burgeoning metropolitan centres.




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