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Central Government Guidance and the Resource Management Act - PP 05/02

The local government role

It is important to review briefly the framework in which local government carries out its share of the tasks under the RMA, and the structures for managing central and local government interactions.

Local councils are bound by multiple Acts and community preferences.

Whatever happens at the central level, once that is in place, councils must work through their own processes at the local level as defined by the RMA and LGA. This includes determining what they are aiming to achieve, both in terms of implementing the national requirements and under their own responsibilities on behalf of their communities.

The RMA provides for regional and district plans and regional policy statements, which relate to achieving the objectives of the RMA itself. This addresses most environmental outcome-setting issues for local government. It still leaves local government the more operational task (not addressed in this paper) of processing specific consent applications.

Councils are established, however, under the LGA and draw a number of powers and responsibilities from that Act, as well as specific provisions of many other Acts. This Act requires councils to undertake Community Outcomes Processes to identify social, economic, environmental and cultural outcomes for community wellbeing. These outcomes should then flow into LTCCPs by July 2006 covering council actions, links with others and the monitoring and measurement of progress. Managing the interfaces between these two regimes complicates the task for councils, which also of course must perform many non-environmental functions under other specific legislation.

Central/Local interactions

In performing these tasks, and their other functions, councils interface with central government to identify where national approaches are binding or discretionary, obtain relevant guidance and draw on resources and information as available.

Although central government defines the structures of local government and prescribes many of its functions, there are no formal links between national and local government policy processes. This can make it difficult for local government to know what its obligations are and where information can be found.

Links between central and local government are loose.

However, a number of mechanisms have developed to manage the inevitable linkages. These include at the political level a series of forums between Ministers and senior local politicians. There are also direct service provision arrangements between national and local government eg, on food safety, and increasing involvement of local government representatives in policy development processes, although this is case specific and not mandated.

Another approach has been to establish networks of local stakeholders (including councils) and central government agencies to address regional issues. Attempts in this direction have been made, particularly in the social policy area, but success is variable. Key constraints include limited central government resources to engage with multiple processes while delivering against other outcomes, and differing timetables at local and national levels. There can also be conflicts between accountability and flexibility in national agencies.

The alternative of designing one set of rules is generally faster and has a lower cost. However, that design process does not have to be directive. It can involve consultation, facilitate information exchange and allow for joint development by central and local government.

Reducing differences can involve standard rules, or a standard approach to making rules.

One option that may help is to create a standard set of principles to apply to the development of central government policy that affects local government. This option has been raised by local government. The purpose would be to increase the extent to which policy takes local concerns and implementation issues into account.[5] This issue may be further developed through the forums noted above.


  • [5]Such standard principles should be able to be linked directly to the existing regulatory impact statement (RIS) regime, which already outlines a model policy development process (Guerin 2003). The RIS requirement is also linked to the Cabinet Office manual, which sets out consultation requirements and is binding on central government agencies but has no legislative status. The value of such a set of principles depends on its own content and on the effectiveness of enforcement mechanisms within central government itself.
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