Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Empowering communities: the localism approach to building stronger regions

OP ED: By Manawatū District Council Mayor, Helen Worboys.

In 1993, a group of frustrated businesspeople got together to do something about Feilding. As the heart of our Manawatu District, we were a typical rural servicing town that was dying. There were growing shop vacancies, tired streets and buildings, and an outer rural community struggling to survive, following the SMP downturn (a significant economic recession during the 1980’s).

It was in this climate that I was hired as Programme Manager– after saying at the interview, ‘the town needs a bomb under it.’ Over the next 20 years, we revitalized the place – with local passion, knowledge, and not a lot of money. These days Feilding continues to grow, has won the Most Beautiful Town Award a whopping 16 times, and the NZ Farmers Market Award three times.

Why am I telling you this? We understood that no one from the neighboring city or central government was going to come and rescue our community. To be successful it had to led out from the ground up.

Thirty years later I am in my third triennium as Mayor, and I follow the same commonsense philosophy every day. It’s now just got a trendy name – localism. Localism is all about community-driven action, and ensuring the voices of those affected by decisions we make – the community itself – are not only heard and listened to in discussions about their future, they’re also part of the decision-making process.

Localism is a lens we can apply to all our work – big and small. For example, at a grassroots level, our district has 16 successful Community Committees (not Boards). Through these, Council empowers, supports and works alongside locals at village level to plan for their future. That’s Localism in action.

On a bigger scale, localism is crucial when it comes to the major reforms we’re facing. Right now, the RMA reform plans to take district planning off councils and turn it into a regional model, where a council would only have one seat. Yes, there’s a place for regional planning – but not at the expense of the strong, local voice.

Localism is key to successful decision making, and we know firsthand that when decisions about the future are left to the technical people – without involving local passion and knowledge – it is a disaster. In our case, a lack of local voice saw our draft Rural District Plan thrown out by the community (along with the Mayor and several councillors who allowed it to happen).

When it came to the Three Waters reform, our community told us they didn’t want water infrastructure handed over to an entity model, with no compensation for the huge investment made locally (Feilding has the second highest rates in the country). We also didn’t want to lose our local decision-making voice. So, we’ve worked with 31 similar-minded councils to form C4LD and come up with an alternative framework – with key opposition parties adopting much of our C4LD policy.

Localism also means knowing when and where to compromise for the good of the community. When Feilding’s largest employer came to Council after they’d been sent a bill from our compliance team – doubling the fee – they threatened to leave town, cutting 300 jobs for our locals.

Council understood the value this large business brought to our community, so we compromised on the costs for the good of the district – rather than just making an academic decision to recover full costs. Had the decision been made at a regional or national level; would the outcome have been different? Again, localism in action.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t work together – regionally and nationally – when it is appropriate, but that is not amalgamation. Our neighbouring city, Palmy, is a strong provincial city, whereas Manawatu District is a strong rural primary sector base. What determines our success is very different, and one size does not fit all.

We have shared services with different neighboring councils for a whole range of things –from infrastructure to animal control to emergency management. Yet these shared efficiencies are not forced on us, they are driven locally.

And while the current structure works (albeit with room for improvement), sustainable funding is a constant problem that needs to be addressed.

That’s one of many reasons why the power of localism needs to be understood by central government and why it’s good to see our sector body LGNZ power up the campaign on this. The localism model needs to be adopted by central government. Only then will we – together – create communities, regions and a country that looks after its people and prospers.

Successful localism is simply about local decision-making using local knowledge, passion and enthusiasm. When combined with technical expertise, it can and does change communities. Which in turn can change regions, and potentially – hopefully – our country. For the better.

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