Roadmap for reinvigorating local democracy launched

Published: July 7, 2019

News type: National news   

Over 600 local and central government delegates, including the Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, were on hand to hear LGNZ president Dave Cull launch a roadmap to greater localism – ‘Reinvigorating Democracy: The case for localising power and decision making to councils and communities,’ at the opening of the LGNZ Conference in Wellington this afternoon.

Speaking to the theme of the conference, “Riding the localism wave: Putting communities in charge”, Mr Cull spoke of the need to give communities more say in the important decisions that affect their lives if New Zealand is to make meaningful progress on the tough challenges facing our society today.

“For too long New Zealand has operated under the belief that we’re a small, homogenous country, so it makes sense to concentrate decision making in the Beehive. That’s a formula for one-size-fit all, top-down decision making,” said Mr Cull.

“Unfortunately that formula no longer works for New Zealand, if it ever did. It is now starkly clear that the needs of communities in Auckland are starkly different from their immediate neighbours in Northland and the Waikato, let alone those of Gisborne, Taranaki, Marlborough, or Invercargill – and our policy responses need to be flexible to enough to respond to this.”

“But that’s a complexity our highly centralised governance structure struggles to respond to, and it costs us dearly as a nation. It drags on our productivity, raises transaction costs, widens inequality, and frustrates individuals and communities who want to improve their own well-being.”

“If we want to meaningfully tackle these challenges, it is time to let go and give power back to communities. The answer to the problems caused by centralised decision making cannot be more centralisation.”

LGNZ’s localism discussion paper set a proposed framework by which decision making can be handed back to communities in phased and gradual way that ensures greater local decision making is matched by improved capacity and capability of institutions, like councils, to meet these needs.

Developed and refined with the input of hundreds of local elected members, academics, business people, iwi, social sector groups, and civic minded individuals, it is being opened to the wider public for comment and input.

Mr emphasised that greater localism posed a challenge for local government as well, as it required councils to also devolve decision making to communities.

“Localism is about giving decision making power back to individuals, communities, iwi, neighbourhoods, districts and regions, and local and central government are the tools by which we act on those decisions, not the other way round.”

Mr Cull urged central government not to see localism as a challenge, but an opportunity to partner up and meaningfully improve the well-being of New Zealand’s diverse communities.

“Our localist framework recognises that each tier of government has its respective strengths and weaknesses,” said Mr Cull.

“Local government cannot hope to match the concentrated expertise and resources of central government. Nor can central government match the on-the-ground presence, diversity and the proximity to communities that local government has.”

“By working together, and putting communities at the heart of our decision making processes, we can tackle the really tough problems facing us, like environment degradation, climate change, and inequality. Your goals are our goals - we want to ensure that lives of future New Zealanders continue to improve compared the generation that came before them, and that can only be achieved if we work together.”

LGNZ are calling for submissions on the discussion paper, which will help LGNZ promote localism during the build up to the 2020 Parliamentary elections.  For more information on LGNZ’s decentralisation and localism project, go to, or to make a submission, please send comments or feedback to LGNZ Principal Policy Advisor Dr Mike Reid at by 15 December 2019.

Updates on the 2019 LGNZ Conference can be found on LGNZ’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, using the hashtags #LocalismNZ and #LGNZ19.

LGNZ president Dave Cull’s speech can also be found below.

Riding the localism wave: Putting communities in charge


  • Tena koutou katoa e hui hui mai nei
  • Ki nga mate - haere, haere, haere atu ra
  • E nga mana, e nga reo, e rau rangatira ma. Tena koutou
  • E nga iwi, tena koutou, tena koutou tena tatou katoa
  • Prime Minister Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern, Hon Nanaia Mahuta, members of parliament, delegates, central government officials, LGNZ partners and particularly our members, New Zealand’s 78 local governments.
  • Kia ora tatou and welcome to the 2019 Local Government New Zealand conference. It is wonderful to be with you all here in Wellington.  Our gratitude also to our host Mayor Justin Lester and the city for your warm welcome.
  • Thank you Prime Minister for your opening remarks. It is encouraging to see that we agree on a number of areas, including:
    • The need for a true partnership between local and central government, to deliver the economic, environmental, social and cultural outcomes that New Zealanders deserve.
    • That we must approach any and all solutions in good faith, with a commitment to the betterment of New Zealand, no matter how challenging the solutions may be, particular in the areas of infrastructure development, housing, climate change, water and tourism.
    • In many areas our communities are calling for change that is allows them to deliver these solutions, and we know that with clear communication between central and local government, we can empower this.
  • On behalf of LGNZ, thank you to our sponsors, partners and delegates who have made this conference possible.
  • A particular acknowledgment to our Platinum sponsors – Fulton Hogan, Fonterra and Simpson Grierson, for the significant support you provide.
  • I would also like to thank our Gold, Silver and Bronze sponsors who also add greatly to our conference. This year we are delighted with the diverse group who have supported us, and we welcome a number of new organisations to our sponsor family.

New Zealand’s localist roots

  • The theme for this year’s conference is “Riding the localism wave: Putting communities in charge.”
  • Localism is the principle that power and authority should flow up from our citizens and communities, rather than down from Government.
  • Greater localism is powerful in that it enables our communities to directly shape their places and futures. To not just say, but to do.
  • New Zealand has a deep history of localism, which can still be seen today, particularly in the traits that New Zealander’s exhibit in spades; independence, innovation, agility, accountability and a collaborative spirit.
  • These qualities stem from our localist heritage, which at the bottom of the world in a beautiful but rugged country, sought to produce strong, self-reliant communities that leverage local advantages and relationships, all the while recognising that we are part of a greater nation, and that a rising tide lifts all boats.
  • Historically, government in New Zealand has been local.
  • Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand, power and authority resided with whanau, hapu and Iwi, and it was only with colonisation that government at a national level became a reality.
  • Even in our early colonial times, settlers maintained a strong sense of self-reliance, independence and regional identify.
  • So it’s a little perplexing that even with these deep localist roots, that as a people we have allowed our governance, decision making and resourcing to be put in the hands of the few.

The poor outcomes of centralisation

  • It is the legacy of our British colonial past that has seen our localist roots fray, at the expense of our communities, iwi, and local democracy.
  • That has been exacerbated by the perception that New Zealand is too small and too homogenous to allow community decision making.
  • As a result we have systematically diluted the voice of communities in important decisions.
  • Today, central government is responsible for 90 cents in every dollar of tax spending. To put this in perspective, the OECD average is just over 50 cents.
  • This over centralisation costs us dearly. It drags on our productivity, raises transaction costs, widens inequality, and frustrates individuals and communities who want to improve their own well-being.
  • There is no better example of this than our housing crisis. International data suggests there is a strong relationship between how centralised a jurisdiction is, and how unaffordable housing is.
  • Places like Germany, Switzerland and the South Eastern United States have all seen house prices stay flat in real terms for decades – all of which are governed by strong localist traditions.
  • Meanwhile, highly centralised jurisdictions like the United Kingdom, Australia, and the East and West coasts of the United States have seen a generation priced out of the housing market.
  • Sadly, we have seen the same story play out in New Zealand. We are a highly centralised country that has the dubious honour of having one of the least affordable housing markets in the developed world.

We are not alone

  • New Zealand isn’t the only country coming up against the hard limits of centralism – the productivity challenge we face is also faced by other developed countries.
  • These countries are also coming to the same conclusion that if you want to move the dial on the issues that matter, central government has to give up some control.
  • This is a drum that LGNZ and leading research institutions like The New Zealand Initiative have been banging for some time.
  • That drum beat is growing in volume.
  • We were greatly encouraged by the Productivity Commission’s draft report on local government funding, which came out last week, noting that local government is key to the well-being of New Zealanders.
  • When the sector performs well it provides greater access to housing; better protect the natural environment and cultural values; and builds strong and engaged communities.
  • But in order to perform well the local government needs to be treated as an equal partner in the regulatory process, not as an afterthought as central government has done for decades.

Our communities want to take back the reigns

  • Of course, in asking central government to devolve decision making, we as the local government sector have to accept a dose of our own medicine.
  • Devolution of decision making power from central government to local government is just centralisation writ small.
  • Instead, if we want people to meaningfully engage in important decisions that affect their lives, we need to enable their decision making . The role of local government is to give action to the decisions they make, not to make important decisions for them.
  • Some might say that is the system we have now, but I put it to you that the 42 percent participation rate in the last local body elections shows just how disenfranchised people really are.
  • Sam Johnson, of the Student Volunteer Army, pointed this out tension between the desire of local people to care for their own area, and the will of central and local government to tell them what to do.
  • To paraphrase his words, he said that people want to help. And that institutions do the same thing each time.  They tell people, “we’re in charge, we know what to do, you stay home”.
  • We need empowerment at a grassroots level - in our community boards, our associations, our sports groups, our local and community boards, trusts and neighbourhoods.
  • These are the basic building blocks that provide a strong foundation for New Zealand, and without it, we cannot expect to be a strong society.

A localist blue print

  • That is the status quo that we are challenging with our Localism project, the latest efforts of which are reflected in the LocalismNZ discussion document that we are launching today.
  • Developed and refined with the input of hundreds of local elected members, academics, business people, iwi, social sector groups, and civic minded individuals, it is a blueprint that can be used to change our centralist ways in a gradual and least regrets fashion.
  • As of today we will be taking this document to the wider public. Over the next six months we will be asking Kiwis to critique our ideas, come up with their own, and start a wider debate about where decisions on important matters should be made in New Zealand.
  • Central government is a critical partner in this process, and we invite you Prime Minister and your Government to a seat at the table.
  • Our localist framework is not intended to challenge or replace central government for the sake of it.
  • Rather it is a recognition that each tier of government has its respective strengths and weaknesses, and we seek to leverage the strengths of the one to make up for the weaknesses of the other, and vice versa.
  • Local government cannot hope to match the concentrated expertise and resources of central government. Nor can central government match the on-the-ground presence, diversity and the proximity to communities that local government has.
  • There is a huge opportunity in front of us to meaningfully improve the well-being of all New Zealanders by having both tiers of government work together for a change.
  • Prime Minister, you’ve recognised through the recently launched Public Service Reforms that the old way of doing things does not work for New Zealand. We agree, but challenge you to look wider than central government ministries and embrace localism and local government.
  • Local government colleagues, equally, I invite you to take up the localism challenge, and engage with your communities more fulsomely that ever, and let their voices guide your actions.
  • This is essential if we are to tackle the challenges that face us.
  • As global markets shift and morph at an ever faster pace, we as a nation will have to earn our way in this world, while at same time grappling with the effects of climate change, de-carbonising our economy, replacing ageing infrastructure, protecting the natural environment, and maintaining and growing our cultural and social taonga.
  • These are daunting challenges, but they are not insurmountable if we work together.
  • Thank you.

Other 2019 media releases