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Controlling our own destiny

Over the past three years the government has been progressing with two major reforms that affect local government.

One used to be known by the name “Three Waters”; the other is usually referred to as “Resource Management Act [RMA] reform”.

The Three Waters reform got a lot of attention from people and from local government. However, the RMA reforms got much less attention. The government intends to replace the much-criticised RMA with three new acts – the Natural and Built Environment Act, the Spatial Planning Act and a Climate Adaptation Act. The first two have already become law.

Along with many other Local Government leaders, I believe that the RMA reforms have had much less scrutiny than the Three Waters reforms, even though the RMA reforms are arguably much more far-reaching for local governments and their communities.

One key effect of the changes is to significantly reduce the influence of local authorities on the resource planning functions that they currently perform. Local authorities will no longer have control over local planning rules.

The planning functions are to be regionalised with the creation of 15 Regional Planning Committees [RPCs]. The membership will be drawn from elected district, city, and regional councils, iwi and ministerial appointees. The irony is that Wellington City will get one vote on the local RPC and can be effectively out-voted by the three Wairarapa Council votes if the three local councils vote as a bloc.

The result is that local communities are largely excluded from influencing planning decisions because those decisions are centralised at a regional level. Currently, each council has a district plan, or in the case of the Wairarapa Councils – a combined plan. There is a democratic process that determines what that plan looks like. Residents can influence the plan to make sure that important local considerations, such as the heritage status of their villages, are preserved.

What we are seeing with the RMA reforms has been described as the “emasculation of local decision-making”. It represents a further trend, apparent in New Zealand for some time, of increased central control. We have seen it with health services and with the polytechnics. You might ask, “If it’s as bad as it sounds, why so little opposition to the RMA reforms?” I think there are two reasons; one is that the RMA being replaced was widely detested, and so many people were optimistic about its replacement. Secondly, the two new Acts are over 1000 pages long and full of novel legal complexities. It is no wonder that people and voters prefer to focus on other issues that are easier to understand.

The opposite of more central control is more localism. Localism means that more decisions are made by the people who are directly affected by those decisions, rather than by a central government. Supporters of localism aim to empower communities to take control of their own destinies. Since 2018, Local Government New Zealand has been calling for greater localism and more devolution. So far with little success, for in New Zealand, Local Government controls about 11 per cent of public spending, compared to an average of 30 per cent in the OECD. But that is a topic for a future column.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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