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Less centralism, more localism

Opinion Piece

Next week I celebrate being on the planet 49 years. I have lived all of those years in Tairawhiti — based on that I think I can call myself a local. So I am very heartened to see that Local Government New Zealand is focusing on a project all about “localism” and what this means for those that govern.

In the context of public governance, localism describes those arrangements where citizens are involved in making decisions about their own areas and localities — either directly through local forums of various kinds, or indirectly through locally-elected authorities.

Recent pronouncements from Shane Jones about economic development within our region suggest many decisions continue to be led by non-locals, with locals having to fight to be heard as their concerns are minimised and locally-supported initiatives overlooked.

Locals who live, breathe and care for their place have watched various industries cause damage over decades, and Minister Jones dog-whistles to his constituents by calling these concerned locals “hippy hapus”.

Our region has a low population and arguably a lower-than-average proportion of entrepreneurs and investors. Those with money generally know how to make money, and choose to do so in investments outside the region.

The Tairawhiti region continues to show some of the highest rates of deprivation in the nation. There is a vicious cycle of under-investment and few high-value businesses are built here. This has been our narrative for generations.

Now we have some solid work into regional “wellbeing” led by Trust Tairawhiti, and the key regional infrastructure company it owns on our behalf, the Eastland Group, has a mantra of “a commercial mind, but a community heart”.

One could argue the driver for a “blue highway” is that the Commerce Commission is forcing Eastland Network to slash its distribution charges, and Eastland Group needs to decide what else it can invest in to keep revenues flowing.

It’s interesting to hear Matt Todd say these forced pricing changes will have negative long-term impacts, inhibiting the company’s ability to invest in the energy future of the region — haven’t they been investing in the region’s energy? Isn’t that what all these out-of-region investments are designed to fund? I guess some of them haven’t worked and others will take a long time to deliver.

So Minister Jones wants to turn Wharekahika into a Special Economic Zone, like they have in China, perhaps for a heartfelt campaign speech about addressing those in high deprivation on the Coast and helping poor provincial New Zealand utilising public funds from unelected decision-makers.

Locally residents are already paying huge costs for industry infrastructure, mostly in roading rates, while a group of locals are working on a rail report that has significant local business interests.

Localism is inclusive and should enable local solutions through partnership and collaboration around place, and provide the conditions for local responses to be planned and supported.

Localism is not a new idea for New Zealand, Harry Atkinson, the dominant politician of the 1880s, enunciated three “principles” with respect to local bodies;

1. that they should be left as free as possible from central control;

2. that they should be empowered as far as was advantageous; and

3. that they should have the greatest possible financial independence.

In short, localism involves an approach to governing New Zealand in which citizens and their communities, working independently and alongside their local governments, play a more active and meaningful role. They also have a greater ability to hold their local decision-makers to account. If we value true democracy beyond the triannual election, then we value localism.