Towards a new ‘localism’: Bottom-up problem solving in the 21st century

With Patrick McVeigh

Last week’s Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) Conference in Christchurch brought together mayors, councillors and senior local government officers from all over New Zealand. With a healthy dose of central government Ministers, MPs and senior civil servants, as well as conference sponsors and other attendees, it was fertile ground for discussion and debate.

A key theme of this year’s conference was localism. A strong message — repeated time and again by the speakers and LGNZ National Council members, particularly LGNZ President and Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull — was that we need a shift in how public decisions are made in New Zealand, with councils and communities being empowered to make their own decisions on the issues affecting their local areas.

This message was reinforced by the well-timed release of the Local Government Position Statement on localism. It signalled the start of a new joint project between LGNZ and The New Zealand Initiative, which is seeking to strengthen local self-governance and obtain a commitment from central government to localism.

The case for localism

On the face of it, the case for localism is clear. The complex, multi-dimensional challenges facing people and places in the early 21st century require integrated, bottom-up problem solving, as well as local flexibility and adaptability. To do this, local governments and their communities need access to the tools and resources required to effectively plan and respond to challenges such as climate change, population growth, infrastructure deficits, and industrial restructuring.

Similarly, if local areas are to grasp new opportunities and create meaningful partnerships and joint ventures, they also need the freedom and flexibility to be able to make innovative and timely use of those tools and resources.

New Zealand is generally recognised as being one of the most fiscally centralised countries in the developed world. As Dr Oliver Hartwich has pointed out, “It is hard to find another country in which local government is as limited and marginalised as it is in New Zealand”. The New Zealand case for further decentralisation and devolution is strong. But, as we embark on the path towards localism, it’s worth recognising that New Zealand is coming rather late to this party, and that our particular history, context and scale all have a bearing on the type and depth of localism that’s achievable here.

As other countries have experienced, localism can mean different things to different people, and ensuring we all mean the same thing can itself be a challenge. The word is often used as shorthand for different policy agendas, including, but not only, decentralisation, devolution and participatory governance. However, as Hartwich has highlighted, the result should be a devolved model of government that delivers better services and stronger democracy.

As other countries have experienced, localism can mean different things to different people, and ensuring we all mean the same thing can itself be a challenge.

Localism = greater community empowerment?

There is an implicit assumption that localism automatically results in greater community empowerment, but research has shown this isn’t necessarily so. If greater localism is to truly empower communities, initiatives need to:
• be actively pursued by all tiers of government as a policy priority 
• actively devolve power to different levels of government 
• be supported by complementary legal and statutory frameworks, and
• promote and encourage active forms of civil society, by supporting community leadership and helping grassroots movements to organise and engage.

This suggests that if New Zealand is to make real progress towards a less top-down form of government, we need to ensure this policy shift is integrated with the wider regulatory framework within which local government operates. The practice of localism also needs to effectively navigate the inherent tensions between scale, community, democracy and citizenship.

As the LGNZ localism project progresses, there will be many opportunities to advance these discussions and to ensure that localism in New Zealand is tailored to our context and not simply transferred in. This includes ensuring that the principles of tikanga Māori are embedded in New Zealand localism.

To paraphrase Bruce Katz from his recent book The new localism, power increasingly belongs to the problem solvers and problem solvers now congregate at the local level.

About the author
Patrick McVeigh
Patrick has more than 25 years’ experience working across the public and private sectors in strategy development, policy formulation, research and evaluation, scenario planning and visioning. He has delivered a broad range of projects in a variety of subject areas and locations, bringing high-level political understanding and finesse. Patrick is a hands-on practitioner who focuses on the client’s needs.
Patrick’s strong consultancy background is based on eight years’ experience in public policy and economic development roles in London, where he worked with clients in local, regional and central government.
Before joining us at MartinJenkins, Patrick spent five years at ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development), where he led the organisation’s business, innovation and skills activities as well as the wider economic insight and analysis programme.
Patrick has a BSc in Town Planning Studies, a Post Graduate Diploma in City and Regional Planning (Distinction), and a Post Graduate Diploma in Social Science Research Methods — all from Cardiff University.