The purpose, role, status, powers and functions for local authorities generally are set out in the Local Government Act .
The purpose of local government is to:
enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities
meet the current and future needs of communities for good-quality local infrastructure, local public services, and performance of regulatory functions in a way that is most cost-effective for households and businesses.
While the phrase “democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities” is not defined, it generally includes the following concepts:
i) local government demonstrates local democracy, as opposed to central government, which generally makes decisions in the national interest
ii) decision-making is carried out by democratically-elected community representatives who are held accountable at the triennial elections
iii) decision-making is carried out on behalf of communities and considers their views.
The Local Government Act requires councils to consider community views in proportion to the significance of decisions and the extent to which people are impacted; the greater the significance, the greater the obligation to make sure that the council knows what the community’s views are (see Section 10.4.2 (d)). For significant decisions, the council will consult the community.
The role of a local authority is to:
give effect, in relation to its district or region, to the purpose of local government; and
perform the duties, and exercise the rights, conferred on it by or under the Local Government Act (and any other enactment).
The core services that local authorities must consider, when they are carrying out their role include:
public transport services
solid waste collection and disposal
the avoidance or mitigation of natural hazards
libraries, museums, reserves, recreational facilities and other community infrastructure.
A local authority is a corporate body which continues to exist despite changes in membership . As a legal entity it can hold property and enter contracts in its own name; it is separate to any of the individuals that comprise the elected governors or management.
Before 2002, local government powers were each specifically set out in the legislation. The Local Government Act 2002 changed this so that a council has full capacity and powers to do anything to fulfil its role . Constraints around this power include:
i) a council must always give effect to its ‘role’ – that is, to fulfil the purpose of local government and other duties conferred on it by statute
ii) a council is subject to the Local Government Act, other statutes and the general law
iii) a council must exercise its powers wholly or principally for the benefit of its area; there are some exceptions to this, including the ability to donate to an emergency relief effort outside its area.
The implication of being subject to the Act means that a council can still only spend money on projects that have been properly approved.