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Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 16 October 2015

puzzleLast week, I wrote about my colourful experiences promoting local government reform in Britain. Though originally unpopular, the idea to give more power to the people has now become government policy over there.

This week, I would like to apply the same thinking to New Zealand and alert you to our new report on Special Economic Zones, which we will launch on Monday.

Our starting point is a simple observation: National policy-making is a hard and cumbersome process.

Just think of the Resource Management Act (RMA). It is a mammoth law, containing 434 main clauses and running over 683 pages.

Since its commencement in 1991, the RMA has been amended almost every year. But that has not stopped it from being almost impossible to reform properly. There are too many irreconcilable interests at the national level which prevent meaningful change.

What if instead of going for a full-scale reform with nationwide impacts, we would allow parts of the country to opt out of parts of the RMA?

Such tweaks could let some places experiment with streamlined consenting processes for minerals exploration. Other cities might speed up planning processes by re-establishing the common law of standing. This would mean that only directly affected parties have the right to object to local activities.

The beauty of such local deviations from national policy is twofold. First, it allows a degree of experimentation that is not possible at the national level. This also limits the potential damage if such reforms do not work.

Second, it passes down decision-making down to the people. Local communities will be able to make their own decisions on issues such as the planning system, liberalising foreign investment, or the level of immigration.

To make this work, we also want to ensure that communities feel the impact of their local decisions in their pockets. If they manage to increase economic activity, they will keep a share of the proceeds of such extra growth.

If you want to find out more about this idea, please join us in Wellington on Monday night. National’s Chris Bishop MP, Labour’s Clare Curran MP, NZ First Deputy Leader Ron Mark MP and investment banker Rob Cameron will debate our new report In the Zone: Creating a toolbox for regional prosperity. Register here for this event, co-hosted with LGNZ.

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