Australia, England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa Democracy, devolution and governance

Global Local Executive Panel – March 2022: Local Government Reform



In this session we heard from a panel of local government CEOs from England, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand who discussed the experiences their councils have faced when dealing with reform and reform processes as well as theoretical reflections on certain aspects of sector reform.

Briefing in full

Hosted by VLGA CEO Kathryn Arndt and moderator Chris Eddy, the panel detailed the experiences their councils have faced when dealing with reform and reform processes as well as theoretical reflections on certain aspects of sector reform more widely.

Pat Daly, CEO of Limerick City & County Council – Ireland

Pat spoke about the transition of Limerick City and County Council to the directly elected mayor model – from the plebiscites that were offered to cities around Ireland, to Limerick being the only city to choose to transition to having an empowered mayor with a direct public mandate, to the creation of a Bill to realise the result of the plebiscite and provide the framework for the establishment of the mayor with democratic powers across Limerick City and County Council. This represents the first time in 100 years that the model of government locally has undergone reform – from the council/manager model to the directly elected mayor model. Pat spoke to some of the challenges and opportunities presented to the council in the transition to the new model, including:

  • The rationale behind the radical change stemming from the need to democratise what was previously quite a centralised system of local government
  • The process of learning from other cities that have undergone similar reforms, such as London and Manchester in England
  • The council’s hopes for a “Limerick deal” – money and mandate from central government for the mayor’s office and his key projects

Steve Ruru, CEO Taranaki Regional Council – New Zealand

Steve spoke about how there’s been no real change to the local government system in New Zealand for over 30 years, and how significant infrastructure investment requirements has driven the need for the 3 Waters Reform along with a suite of other reforms. The 3 Waters Reforms involve water, wastewater and stormwater management and provision moving from being delivered by 70+ councils to being delivered by four water service delivery entities across the whole of New Zealand. This is accompanied by Resource Management Reform and a review into the Future of Local Government. Steve took us through why these reforms are happening, how they are important for local government, and how the local government sector is reacting to the changes and challenges and opportunities faced along the way:

  • Local government reforms in New Zealand are occurring at a significant speed due to the combination of the strong political mandate from a majority in central government, and the three-year election cycle
  • communities and local authorities are responding to the change in mixed ways; some welcome the well-overdue changes, others agree with the need for reform but question the speed of the changes, and others reject the need for change altogether and are fighting the reform agenda
  • The reforms present opportunities for more localised service delivery, local and central government working more effectively together, increased co-governance with Maori, and increased equity of outcomes for citizens

Rachael Shimmin, CEO Buckinghamshire Council – England

Rachel spoke on the unitarization of Buckinghamshire Council, in which five existing councils were abolished to be replaced with the new unitary district council of Buckinghamshire Council. She spoke of the rationale behind the reform being issues around making best use of resources, getting local voices heard and included in national mechanisms, and clarity over decision-making responsibilities. Rachel took us through the processes by which the five councils came together to make the reforms happen, and some of the challenges that were overcome along the way including:

  • no proper process existing nationally through which councils can ask central government to consider such reforms, and no frameworks for what sort of evidence needed to be provided to make it happen
  • Some of the councils involved not being on board with the proposition and lodging a counter proposal for the creation of two councils instead of one, resulting in strained relationships between councils and delays to the process
  • several different secretaries of state in central government during the process

When asked what she’d do differently if she was starting the process again, Rachel said she would be more bullish about the fact that change was going to happen and the need to get on with it.

Marcus Spiller, Principal and Partner at SGS Economics & Planning

Marcus spoke about the need for local government reform in Australia. He spoke of how local government is the most trusted sphere of government in Australia but that it is currently not being allowed to live up to its potential. Marcus presented the conceptual framework that successful governance depends upon the meeting of three conditions: the democratic mandate, functions defined by subsidiarity, and fiscal autonomy – but that, for the following reasons, in reality very few of these conditions are met for local government:

  • Councils are rate-capped and have limited discretion over property taxes, and no capacity for local income/consumption taxes
  • council functions are strictly confined and supervised by the state governments
  • regular cost shifting occurs by state government to local government
  • subsidiarity is fuzzy and councils exist under the constant threat of intervention by state government

Marcus suggested that local government was treated as the municipal service arm of state government, and that reform is necessary in order to ensure more effective local governance.

Video and future panels

You can listen to the presentations from all the speakers plus the engaging Q&A session in the video below:



The next sessions in our 2022 Global Local Executive Panel programme will be as follows:

Thursday 26 May – Trust & Culture in Local Government

Thursday 28 July – Biodiversity Planning and Green Spaces

Thursday 20 September – Rural and Coastal Issues

Thursday 10 November  – COP26: One Year On