Why are we suspicious of centralisation?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 5 August 2022

Merging our local services into one big national hub is being sold as a logical move and a cost-saver. When we centralise, what do we gain - and what do we lose?

A sign of the times - opposition to government three waters restructuring in full view alongside SH1 south of Whangārei.

A sign of the times - opposition to government three waters restructuring in full view alongside SH1 south of Whangārei. Photo: Northern Advocate / LDR

New Zealand is in the midst of major structural change when it comes to the bodies that rule our lives. 

Polytechnics, water, the health system, the public service, and the ongoing push to amalgamate local councils. 

The usual reasons given for such upheaval are economies of scale and the need to reorganise a system that isn't working - the idea that a central body running regional services will be more efficient and will save money. 

That was certainly the aim in 1989 when the government got rid of single-purpose local bodies and boroughs, merging 454 of them into 86 councils. Then again with Auckland in 2010 when the supercity was created from seven councils and one regional authority. 

Those changes didn't happen without a fight. 

Simon Chapple is director of the institute of governance and policy studies at Victoria University. He grew up in Devonport, where one of the loudest seats of opposition to amalgamation was in 1989, with a virulent 'NO' campaign. 

"The rhetoric is absolutely echoed now with some of the pushback on the centralisation now," he says. 

"People feeling that they had local ownership, they had local voice, and they had local control." 

But is it necessarily wrong? Today on The Detail, Sharon Brettkelly looks at the quest for solutions behind these big changes. 

"I think we're seeing two forms of centralisation," says Chapple. "One is centralised solutions, but we're also seeing highly centralised processes that led to these solutions. Basically the political arm of government is coming to the table with a solution to a problem they've identified. And that centralisation means that they've been particularly poor at looking at ranges of plausible alternatives to the particular services they've chosen.

"But also .. they've not been particularly good at a process of consulting the public with an open mind. And I think that's the reason we're seeing public disquiet or pushback." 

Chapple says such centralisation may be good in some areas and bad in others. 

But he's critical of what he calls the closed-minded processes chosen for all these reforms. 

"We're looking in every case at big, expensive, consequential and difficult-to-reverse decisions. Now, if you are making big, expensive, and difficult-to-reverse decisions, you should make those in a very careful and deliberate way with a pretty high degree of non-partisanship. 

"And I think that public policy agenda is running into the fact that we have a first-past-the-post government and they have an agenda. They perceive, I suspect, that they have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get that agenda through." 

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