OPINION: Stuff reporter Joel Maxwell recently questioned whether councils have a place in the modern world, where experts are increasingly called on to decide critical matters.
He cites a proposal to move fluoridation from councils to the director-general of health, and asks, if local government can’t even get communities to agree to a fairly straightforward and evidence-based health policy, then how can we trust them with anything else?
It’s a valid question, and one all New Zealanders have a stake in seeing answered. Especially as we undertake a wide range of major reforms, spanning three waters to resource management, all of which will significantly shape how much say they have in their communities.
It’s actually a fairly easy question to answer.
Put simply, where impacts of a policy are borne locally, then it should be local people who make the decisions. For example, the costs of libraries, sports facilities and swimming pools should be borne by the communities who benefit from those facilities.
Where impacts of a policy are borne regionally, then it should be the wider region that gets to weigh in and formulate a policy response to deliver the best outcome. A good example here is a regional council being responsible for a public transport network that serves ratepayers across a wider area of territorial authorities.
You can probably see where I’m going with this: where impacts of a policy are borne nationally, then the legislation and policy that serves to address it should be developed at a national level.
It’s called the principle of subsidiarity, which takes us back to fluoride.
While there are operational costs for councils to add fluoride to their drinking water, by and large the bigger costs of not doing so wash up at a national level in our health system, in the form of dental decay. So it makes complete sense to remove single-issue local government polling booth politics from addressing this issue. LGNZ supports this.
But we need to be clear where the balance of responsibility lies, as the ‘’diffusion of democracy’’ cuts both ways.
If we’re applying the principle of subsidiarity, for every issue where central government should call the shots, there are myriad others where decision-making should be delegated downwards. That’s because the costs and benefits are worn locally, and people in place have better knowledge about the situation on the ground.
Unfortunately, this is something that we as a country have failed to get right over the past 30 years.
A good example of this hit the headlines earlier this year – the issue of trade waste.
It stands to reason that regional councils should have the regulatory tools to control how industrial users dispose of waste to ensure good practice. However, since central government has never fully delegated decision-making power to the environmental regulator on the ground, regional councils can’t issue infringement fines for dumping toxic contaminants down local sewerage lines.
Imagine if police didn’t have the ability to issue an infringement for speeding, but instead had to take every single minor traffic infringement through a full-blown court process. No-one would be happy, except perhaps boy racers and lawyers.
Maxwell will be pleased to know, however, that the Government is addressing these blurred boundaries in some areas.
There’s the fluoridation issue, and climate change mitigation which the Government is addressing through the use of an Emissions Trading Scheme, as well as the big end of town – the Three Waters reforms.
The issue is, the Government is only aggregating up. It needs to ensure there are shifts both ways, so that local people have a meaningful say. The proposed Resource Management reforms are an area where we think central government is overreaching by proposing to consolidate all approximately 63 district plans into just 14 regional plans.
The Three Waters and RM reforms are so big that they have the potential to redefine how local people have a democratic say in their turangawaewae. It’s only right that big reforms include a discussion about what level of government should make decisions, and how local people get to have their say at the appropriate level.
This is why we’re calling for these major reforms to be joined up under the Future for Local Government programme, that will look closely at how our communities’ voice will be enabled in the future, and what role local government should play in ensuring community resilience and well-being.
To do otherwise is to strip local democratic structures of any real decision-making power, at which point people will stop voting en masse, and newspaper columnists – misdiagnosing the problem – will no doubt opine further about the failures of the local democratic model.
Let us be the first to put up our hand and say we don’t get everything right.
But if we are going to make progress as a country, we need to stop endless hand-wringing over the symptoms, and start looking at the causes, starting with roles and responsibility.
Stuart Crosby is president of Local Government New Zealand and a Bay of Plenty regional councillor.