Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Harbour tunnels and Let’s Get Wellington Moving – what do they have in common?

Op-ed by LGNZ Chief Executive, Susan Freeman-Greene.

LGNZ CE, Susan Freeman-Greene.

What do the Harbour Tunnels and Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) have in common?

They are both, multi-billion-dollar, transformative infrastructure projects where decisions have been taken out of local hands and local control by national politics, despite significant local engagement by councils with their communities. Both projects have paid the price of short term, cyclical thinking – the rush for the sugar hit of winning votes instead of seriously focusing on the future of New Zealand

LGWM – a project that was supposed to transform the capital city – is now a poster child for the consequences of the total imbalance of power between central government and local government.

At the centre of the controversial programme is a light rail network that would run from the CBD railway station to Island Bay. The National Party, during their transport policy announcement, said they would scrap the programme in favour of more roads. Meanwhile, Labour has refused to back it – which is as good as scrapping it in an election year.

And most recently we saw the Government announce plans to build tunnels as part of the second Auckland Harbour crossing – and the National Party supported the vision – without talking to local government.

These examples show a clear lack of support for – or engagement with – councils when it comes to major decisions. This is disappointing. All politicians want to serve their communities well, but too often we forget that local government – not central – are the ones closest to these communities. What’s more, unlike Government decisions, council decisions are made after extensive consultation with their communities. Unlike central, they have to make sure their community’s voice is at the centre of their decision-making.

Any future Government should support councils and entrust them to make the best decisions for their community. That’s democracy. 

Instead, on one hand we have our capital city’s $7 billion transport project is being axed – despite going through a rigorous community consultation. One the other, we have a $45 billion decision about the Auckland Harbour Bridge being made without any local government input.

Regardless of what party you support, or what your views on LGWM are, Wellington City Council and Greater Wellington Regional Council were voted in by their community and have committed to progressing this project.

At the Local Government New Zealand Conference, SuperLocal, the two Chris’ (Hipkins and Luxon) expressed their desire to build trust between central and local government through creation of genuine partnerships, “adult to adult,” as Luxon said.

Fast forward a few weeks, and we’re getting major decisions ‘from the top’ that not only undermine local government, but also play into voter apathy when it comes to local government elections. Why bother voting if the decisions councils make can be scrapped in a heartbeat by central politicians? Why bother if the major decisions that affect your community are made by central government, without local input? Fair questions.

Despite what Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon promised, not honouring decisions made by councils who’ve been voted in by their communities, or not engaging with local government on major future-focused decisions – is not partnership.

These sorts of (mis)steps are not conducive to good, long term, sustainable decision making that endures various changes of governments. Of course, it’s election year, and parties are eager to capitalise on frustrated voters. And we will always have frustrated voters.  But when it comes to tricky areas such as infrastructure and climate resilience, councils should be the ones leading the decision making – they do so after extensive consultation and deliberation, and governments should respect those decisions. That’s an enduring partnership.

That’s localism.

LGNZ CE, Susan Freeman-Greene speaking at the LGNZ annual conference.

At the end of last month, Local Government launched the Choose Localism campaign, which is about leveraging what councils already do and looking at innovative ways for councils to give communities a say in their future. We need a bottom-up approach, not a top-down approach. Of course, there are things that central government should run. We are, after all, a small country, and some things are simply more efficient and cost-effective when they’re operated centrally.

But when it comes to what a specific community needs – there’s no one size fits all. And that’s what Choosing Localism champions – local approaches, local solutions.

If a government really wants what’s best for New Zealand, they need to find a way to work with its councils and communities in pursuit of a better future for everyone – not just a few more votes this year. After all, local government and central government serve the same communities.

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