How can local government influence the economic recovery?

How can local government influence the economic recovery?

New Zealand’s recovery from COVID-19 will be fast-paced and urgent, however we must not lose sight of our long-term objectives over this period.  

James Hughes, Climate and Resilience Specialist, says “Of critical importance in the recovery is that councils understand their spheres of influence, and have clear principles, processes and criteria to make good decisions. This should enable us to act with urgency and have an agreed future-focussed direction”.

A key objective must be that Government and councils enable a strong private sector recovery, which creates sustainable prosperity and better social outcomes for all. ‘Enabling’, will require a step-change in mindset and approach. At a local level we need councils and economic development agencies (EDAs) to be proactive and flexible, and to help create an environment which fosters and removes barriers to innovation and economic activity.

At the same time, decisions need to put health and human rights first, honour Te Tiriti through local partnership, and not lose sight of vital national commitments and targets, such as zero carbon and freshwater legislation.

There is a risk that decisions are rushed and fail to maximise opportunities to address multiple challenges across society, our natural and built environments, and the broader economy.

James has created a list of criteria can be used to guide Councils and EDAs in good decision making to enable a strong and enduring recovery:

1. Maximise opportunity for local employment

Stimulus funds should try to maximise local employment where relevant, and utilise local suppliers. Funding different types of projects would offer the potential to utilise and develop local workers and achieve other benefits. The focus however should not just be getting people into jobs, but focus on quality employment that provides an opportunity for development and advancement.

2. Prioritize the most ‘vulnerable’ and aim for inclusive, equitable outcomes

We should aim to spend more money in areas of economic and social vulnerability. For example, areas of known vulnerability could be prioritised for investment in infrastructure resilience, such as improvements in flood schemes in low lying areas. We should also prioritise spend that has the opportunity to retrain workers, in sectors with high unemployment due to Covid-19 (tourism, hospitality), in skills that will be relevant for the future.

3. Invest in (and regenerate) existing town centres to provide much-needed housing – with opportunities for multiple co-benefits

By investing in existing town centres it provides multiple benefits for businesses. Many of our town centres were already in decline prior to Covid-19 and a lack of investment could end many small businesses in the area. We must reimagine our CBDs and get people ‘living downtown’ through the building of medium and high density, mixed-use developments.

4. Focus infrastructure investment on our future goals

The infrastructure we build today will shape our country for generations to come. By prioritising infrastructure investment to achieve important goals, like clean water, better waste management, low carbon, climate resilience, green infrastructure and multi-modal transportation, decision-makers can lay a solid foundation for a future of health and prosperity.

5. Fix it first

We should prioritize the repair and rehabilitation of existing useful infrastructure to maximise the value of taxpayer dollars, where cost-effective and appropriate. This may also have less lead time required meaning work can start on these projects sooner.  

6. Invest for climate resilience and a low emissions future

Climate change is one of the most important challenges of our time and no infrastructure investment should be made without considering its implications. All new infrastructure should be built with the climate of the future in mind. Current infrastructure investments must not lock us into either a high-emissions development pathway or one that increases exposure to the impacts of climate change.

7. Get the most out of our existing infrastructure

Using our existing infrastructure more efficiently can often reduce the amount we need to spend, with similar benefits. It also means spending can be reallocated over for other priorities. This can relate to, for example, demand management, or targeting development in areas where there is spare infrastructure capacity. This also particularly applies to redevelopment in existing town centres.

8. Assess and understand risk – as best as possible

There is always a degree of uncertainty with investments, however the unknowns we are currently facing are massive. We must assess whether projects generate stimulus and employment benefits over the short term and whether they are durable even in the face of other possible future scenarios (economic, social, climate), including possible re-imposition of local quarantine measures.

“Through following these criteria when making decisions, it means that stimulus spending can help get the New Zealand economy moving again while having an agreed future-focussed direction.

This will ensure New Zealanders and their businesses are helped in the short term, and infrastructure is built that will help New Zealand deliver on its sustainable and social outcomes goals for generations to come,” says James.

Read James' full piece, including more detail on the decision making criteria on his LinkedIn post.


James Hughes is an expert in the field of infrastructure resilience and climate change.  He is currently involved in NZ’s first National Climate Risk Assessment and he led the widely recognised work for Local Government New Zealand in 2019 which resulted in the publication of the report VULNERABLE: The quantum of local government infrastructure exposed to sea level rise.

Read Local Government NZ’s media release on the report

Read Climate Change Minister, James Shaw’s media release about the report

Read Radio New Zealand’s coverage of the report

And our synopsis of the report