Regionalization and Governance

Regionalization was presumably a much talked about subject at the recent Municipalities convention.  Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador have prepared a series of papers to focus the discussion.  It is not a new topic.  Regional Government has been an aspect of the municipalities act for many years.

My own involvement in municipal government in Newfoundland and Labrador and my work in other places has afforded me much insight into the necessities of regionalization and its deficiencies. 

During the time of my work in Nova Scotia there was an opportunity to see first hand the process of partial regionalization being instituted in that province.  Subsequently, my move to Scotland happened at the same time that de-regionalization was in progress in that country (both were in the 1990s).  What was interesting was that in both cases the change was being made to cut costs.

Municipal government, as we know it, had been destroyed in much of Britain in the 1970s: replaced with Regional Government.  Nova   Scotia was taking a similar approach twenty years later replacing some Municipal Councils with Regional Councils, while organizing community councils at the local level, which were advisory in nature (no power and no budgets).

Older people in Scotland bemoaned the fact that originally their towns were Royal Boroughs and now they were “villages”.  Apparently, little consideration was given to the impact on people and their identities wrapped in the pride of the places where they lived and grew old; nor any thought given to the implications for local governance.

Regional Government in both these cases, it appears, was politically driven, more about centralization and ultimately about consolidating political power.  Regional Government in most cases hasn’t achieved it full potential, because it has been implemented for reasons other than assuring genuine local governance.

The material prepared by Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador provides a relatively good history of Municipal Government and local development in this province, though there are some apparent gaps.  It is a starting point for dialogue and discussion and outlines the necessity of regional approaches and offers examples from other places.

The reports offer several basic premises for Regional Government and infer that it shouldn’t just be another tier of larger municipalities to replace smaller ones, should be self sufficient, and not impinge on current municipal structures, either politically of fiscally.

It appears that the main roles for such a government would be to reduce costs due to duplication of services, bring into the municipal tax base those areas operating outside current municipal boundaries and facilitate more effective approaches to economic development.

Surprisingly, the authors suggest that “governments represent people, but their primary purpose is to provide a service”, and that “politicians are elected to macro-manage the delivery of services”.  They elaborate that “the debate on regional government is essentially a debate about the delivery of services”.

My belief has always been that governments are about governance, even those at the municipal level, service delivery is merely a function; albeit, an important one.

Regional Government, like any democratic government, needs to be representative, inclusive and accountable to its citizens.  As no form of government is self sufficient, they require some form of taxation base in order to exist.

While the documents suggest that identity, or the fear of its loss, often impedes progress; my conviction is that local identity is the most significant contributor to human progress and stability.

This was overlooked with the demise of local government in Scotland, and this neglect still reverberates through their society affecting economies, lifestyles and resulting in social dislocation.  Younger people have never had an opportunity to experience or to be engaged in local governance; for older people it is a faded memory.

Because government is about governance, first and foremost, there needs to be some evaluation/examination of the whole context of governance in this province to provide a clearer understanding how best communities and regions should be governed.  This exercise might build understanding of the foundations and basis for the roles and fit for all three levels of government (including regional).

Regional Government might be considered as the bridge and the link between municipalities and provincial representation.  To function effectively Regional Government requires the devolution of power, authority and fiscal resources from both the provincial and municipal governments.

More importantly, regional and municipal governments have to be recognized as genuine and legitimate governing bodies contributing to the overall well being of the province and not just service providers and tax collectors.

If Newfoundland and Labrador is to implement Regional Government then there needs to be more research, much dialogue and greater understanding of the pitfalls and complexity of regionalization and its development, not only its perceived benefits.

Why should this province follow in path of others by adopting concepts that have mostly proven wanting?  Why not be bold and daring, opening up the whole concept of democratic governance and how it should be organized in the best interests and for the benefit of all?

Written by Bill Pardy,

November 24th, 2010

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