Following is my first assignment for a course I am studying with The Mind Lab. Leading Beyond Sustainability. It is an argument pro localism.
How might a localism model provide a pathway for authentic sustainable practises that empower local communities to shine?
This paper advocates for more devolvement of power and accountability from central government to a local level, whether it be via local government or, potentially, certain not-for-profit community organisations.
It is acknowledged at the offset that although Local Government is ‘local’ there is debate around how well it can serve the communities it represents. Take the Far North for example. A geographical size of 7,324 km², with a population of 68,500 or around 9.75 persons per square kilometre. It is a district with areas of high deprivation, inequality issues and aging infrastructure. With a ratepayer base of less than 40,000, it is extremely difficult to deliver on the needs, let alone the wants.
What is localism? Wikipedia describes it as a range of political philosophies which prioritise the local. (1) The Commission on the Future of Localism states ‘Localism must be about giving voice, choice and control to communities who are seldom heard by our political and economic institutions. Localism should enable local solutions through partnership and collaboration around place, and provide the conditions for social action to thrive.’ (2)
Along with a local example of ‘social action’ in action, this paper uses a Local Government New Zealand initiative – LocalismNZ as a foundation. A discussion paper was launched in July 2019 (3). Of recent it has been incorporated into the Future of Local Government review, now underway.
A key driver for LocalismNZ is the way in which Aotearoa - New Zealand is governed – in that it is unusually centralised (and arguably becoming more so). Local Government in New Zealand spends about 12 percent of public funds compared to near half in other developed western countries.
Although LocalismNZ does not discuss sustainability specifically, many of the ten reasons provided do capture the essence. These include building community resilience; power and authority being shared around; and a more efficient and effective way of meeting community needs.
It’s also good for local democracy! If we consider the growing global discontent in public services (4), in which we are seeing decreasing voter turnout, confidence in democracy waning, trust and dissatisfaction in public services also dropping, it definitely signals that something is seriously amiss with the current system.
‘On a conceptual level, there are important affinities between localism and deliberative democracy. This concerns mainly the democratic goal of engaging citizens in decisions that affect them. Consequently, localism will encourage stronger democratic and political participatory forums and widening public sphere connectivity.’
David J. Hess
It’s important to be mindful that the majority of policy is a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In Aotearoa -New Zealand where there are clear differences between rural and urban environmental settings, policy, which is often developed to meet the needs of the majority, thus urban, can have some serious negative impacts on rural living.
Along with strengthening democracy, a thriving Localism approach will have positive impacts on a number of the Sustainable Development goals. For example:
If we look to Te Ao Maori, the understanding that all is connected, it makes sense to trust and empower communities to make decisions that immediately affect them.
Ko au te taiao, ko te taiao ko au - I am the environment and the environment is I. (6)
Localism also offers an opportunity to change mindsets, which will influence sustainability and beyond. To move from a ‘me’ to ‘us’ approach. Putting local decisions back into the hands of communities it affects, helps create collective thinking that shares and cares, grows understanding and respect. Rather than the all too common individual approach of ‘not in my backyard.’
As with all things, there are challenges that would need to be addressed, potentially including ‘flying the plane while building it.’ Others include the need to ensure that the community of interest has the desire to take charge and if so, feel they will be trusted and empowered to lead.
With many conflicting pressures, particularly so if poverty is in the mix (7), sometimes there is not the capacity to step into this space. Having said that, this does provide a good argument to support communities in such space, to encourage them to consider local solutions.
Another challenge is resource. Whether this be expertise, time, investment or other, inadequate resource commitment can be extremely detrimental to the success of this approach. Having said that, it can also create a space for great innovation.
A ‘LOCAL’ EXAMPLE
Through high frustrations of ‘inattention’ from the local council, Focus Paihia Community Charitable Trust (FPCCT) was founded (8). Supreme winner of the Trustpower National Community Awards in 2014 and winner of the New Zealand Community of the Year 2015, it’s a grass-roots organisation that was born out of the belief that Paihia has the potential to become an exceptional place to live, work and visit.
A not-for-profit volunteer group, formally set up in 2010, the Trusts’ objectives are:
-Celebrating our cultural diversity by - respecting our past - thriving in our present - creating our future
-A contemporary, maritime village that embraces its cultural heritage and protects its natural
-World renowned for providing exceptional experiences
-Infrastructure complements and enables sustainable development
-A connected community where we all feel safe, included and valued
-Together, man and nature succeeding in harmony
While sustainability is not clearly identified, the goals articulate an authentic approach to growing community strength and connection, while recognising the importance of all four well-beings.
The Trust has had a significant impact on the look and feel of the community and is somewhat the envy of other areas. From redeveloping a carpark into an award-winning community space (9), regular community working bees, building and managing the Waitangi Mountain Bike Park (10) to installing CCTV, which is having immediate impacts (11). These, along with numerous other projects, have uplifted what was once a tired environment.
One particular project saw the renovation of a public toilet block (with an open sewer and labelled the worst toilet in New Zealand) transformed by volunteers in just 10 days for a cost of $13k. It was estimated it would have cost council in the vicinity of $150k. (This supports another of LocalismNZs’ 10 reasons in that it reduces cost to overall government).
Another example of its sustainable approach, was a focus on being self-sustaining - not having to rely on grants and external funding. The Trust undertakes a number of activities to address this. These include operating a community op shop (in which it owns the building) again run by volunteers. Profit last financial year was $128k. It also holds contracts with the local council for town maintenance and beautification, along with managing the village green.
It clearly meets the Sustainable Cities and Communities goal of being inclusive, safe and resilient, as the CCTV project has illustrated.
It can, however, be argued that one of the greatest outcomes is the binding of a previously disconnected community. That Paihia found its heart, through building strong community connections via projects and activities that sought to celebrate community spirit.
The reason for its many successes can be attributed to the leadership of the Trust along with its strong volunteer base. It has and will continue to have challenges, as is inevitable, particularly within small communities. One way to address this will be to ensure it continues to fairly represent the wider community.
Another observation will be the need to reflect and evolve the organisation as community priorities flex and change, along with regional, national and global pressures.
The recent challenges around Covid-19 and the huge impact it has had on the tourism industry, a staple economy for Paihia, provides the Trust with an opportunity to consider how it continues to unite and uplift the citizens, as human connection is even more vital during difficult times.
Its original focus of community beautifying projects has generally run its course (there’s not a lot left to do!) Future focus will need to ensure clarity around its role and clear pathways to continue to support community aspirations. There will always be a need to be inclusive, open and transparent working within this diverse community.
FPCCT, a highly successful model, strongly demonstrates the argument for Localism and community empowerment. It clearly shows that communities are capable of making decisions and acting on the things that affect them and with much less cost and bureaucracy.
Note: for transparency I was a key instigator of Focus Paihia.
‘Extreme concentration of power and authority is a risk to all societies. Localism is one way of ensuring that power and authority is spread around communities rather than concentrated in one place. Empowering communities provides a check and balance on central government as it gives citizens a level of autonomy and self-governance on local matters. The result is stronger democracy all around.’ (12)
David J Hess
Aotearoa – New Zealand is a small country, a ‘young’ country. We are also an innovative and dynamic country. There is opportunity to be world leaders in how we look after our people, our place. I believe that a Localism approach offers a pathway forward that truly reflects respect and celebrates our strength and our diversity, in that communities are empowered to do what works for them in an open, effective and efficient manner.
Localism does not offer all the answers, but it certainly provides an opportunity for a creative step in the right direction when it comes to empowering strong and thriving communities. Focus Paihia is proof of this.
As an ex-elected member, looking to run again in this year’s local government elections, it will be a cornerstone in my approach to supporting the people I serve. Local Government would need to ensure stronger connections, open communication and transparency in its actions. There would also be a need to address bureaucracy and potentially legislation to allow for a truly vibrant approach.
If we are to look to a model that has the potential to strongly demonstrate leadership for authentic sustainability, where the motivations for doing the right thing is paramount and etched into value and purpose, Localism, whether for better democracy, stronger communities or more efficiency and effectiveness, ticks many boxes.
Nga mihi to study colleagues Jo Perkins and Martin Kaipo for sharing their wisdom and expertise.
Appreciate the support of the Focus Paihia Community Charitable Trust.