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For a boost in inspiration and participation, councils need greater independence

Local government is crucial and too often ignored. Our proposed constitution starts by recognising they need greater autonomy, explain Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler.

The local government elections for New Zealand conclude this week. We hope the voter turnout is high, although we worry it will not be.

Local government is very important. But because so many of its infrastructural services are not easily visible and its role is not well understood, people often do not think much about it.

The draft constitution contained in our book A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand contains a set of constitutional principles for local government.

This is a good week to be thinking about them.

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Alongside central government in most countries runs some form of local government, generally carrying out a variety of functions including implementing central government policies on a local scale, managing infrastructure and otherwise dealing with government matters on a narrower, day-to-day basis.

Some measure of local government is necessary in all properly governed countries. The issue as to the form it should take is rather more complicated. The powers of local government are an important part of the public power that can be exerted in New Zealand, and finding the right balance between accountability and efficiency, and between local and central government, can be difficult. As it stands, there is an unsatisfactory and unfinished character to current local government structures in New Zealand.

While local government in New Zealand is subordinate to central government, and ultimately is controlled by legislation passed by parliament, it is nonetheless invested with substantial law-making and regulatory powers. Most of its activities revolve around network infrastructure of roads and public transport, water supply, waste water, storm water, solid waste and cultural and recreational facilities. People rightly think of local authorities as being responsible for roading, water, sewerage, parks and reserves, and collecting the rubbish. But they have a much wider range of responsibilities, particularly of a regulatory character. A good example is the power to grant consents required under the Resource Management Act 1991.

Central government has traditionally regarded local government as its agent and not a political body that enjoys autonomy. This has the serious effect of diminishing the quality of local government. In a variety of ways, the approach of central government to its local counterpart has made the latter risk-averse, tentative and unduly humble, which causes a raft of administrative issues and bureaucracy that citizens have to deal with when they need anything from local government.


See also: Geoffrey Palmer unfurls his blueprint for a written constitution


The relationship between local government and central government in New Zealand is not satisfactory. The lessons seem to be clear. Democratic government is frequently troublesome. The replacement of the Canterbury Regional Council elected members by government-appointed commissioners by statute in 2010 was a sad day for local democracy. And it is not yet restored. Local decision-making, local responses to local issues, and local accountability are critical components of our democracy. Central governments in New Zealand frequently think they know best, but that confidence sometimes proves not to be justified. What local government needs is an infusion of inspiration, vision and community involvement. The time has come to provide local government with a greater measure of autonomy.

Local government in New Zealand could be more vibrant, effective and responsive to its communities on local issues if it were provided with a robust constitutional place upon which to stand and a more coherent and principled set of legal requirements under which to function. Here are the constitutional principles we propose:

(1) The State must have a democratic, transparent and accountable system of local government based on the following principles:

(a) the principle of subsidiarity, meaning that the provision of services and the solution of problems should take place as close to the citizens as practicable as the nature of the relevant process allows subject to allocative efficiency;

(b) the power of units of local government to manage their own affairs independently within subject-matters established in Acts of Parliament;

(c) fostering within each unit of local government the concept of community;

(d) local government representatives must be democratically elected by secret ballot;

(e) local government must be open and transparent in its decision-making and accountable to its citizens;

(f) the financing of local government by the imposition of rates on land and property provided for by Act of Parliament must be accompanied by a revenue sharing programme with central government negotiated between central and local government;

(g) Parliament may provide special procedures for central government to ensure compliance with the law and the execution of delegated responsibilities, including the appointment of independent commissioners in accordance with law.

(2) When any new responsibility is placed on local government by or under Act of Parliament, that must be preceded by adequate consultation and estimates of the financial and administrative costs of that new responsibility.

We would be interested to know what people think about these proposals.

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