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The Flying Local Government Dutchmen

I love the word collaboration almost as much as I love the word innovation. That’s because when I hear officials using these terms it usually sets off my BS alarm. After all, who could be opposed to collaboration or for that matter innovation? But scratch behind the slick paint job and you tend to find little of either. Take economic development for example. Every local council in New Zealand lists economic growth as a laudable goal, one buttressed with liberal lashing of the I-word and the C-word (collaboration!). Yet when you look at what economic development agencies actually do it amounts to little more than marketing and tourism promotion – no real “I” or “C” to been seen.

That is not the case in The Netherlands. Here there is collaboration and innovation to be found aplenty.

At its most basic level it is about partnering on infrastructure and services to achieve economies of scale, something many of the 400 municipalities would struggle to deliver on their own. But that’s small bickies as they say. The real Dutch collaboration and innovation happens at a higher level. Here we see collaboration between different municipalities, business, and institutions such as universities and training institutes. The end effect is a highly flexible forum focused delivering the mix of public and private good that produce significant benefits.

Take Eindhoven for example, a major industrial city, nexus of private sector innovation, and home to the manufacturing bases of Siemens and Phillips. Colloquially it is referred to as the Brainbox. Industry desperately needed an airport to improve its international connectivity. The only problem was that there was no space for it in Eindhoven. So instead the municipalities in the region teamed up to build it in another municipality. Of course there were negative spill overs for this municipality who wants to live under a busy flight path? So the deal that was struck between the various local councils which ended up compensating this one municipality for the loss of revenue. In addition, the other municipalities agreed to increase the amount of land allocated to home building in their jurisdictions to make up for the fact that developers were unlikely to want to build houses near the airport. Collaborative and innovative, my, my.

That spirit of collaboration and innovation is starting to extend beyond point localities and their surrounds. Amsterdam for example works to promote economic growth in the wider region, not just its own interests. Nor is Amsterdam unique. Other cities have teamed up with their neighbours and the businesses in their respective regions to try and enhance their particular competitive niche.

It is inspiring and depressing to see. Inspiring because it highlights what local government can do if it thinks outside of the traditional remit while sticking to its core competencies (no investing in Tasmanian dairy farms thank you very much New Plymouth District Council). Depressing because New Zealand is at least a decade away from this kind local government thinking, and the political leaders necessary for this kind of transformation are thin on the ground. It is not all bad news. In many respects local government in New Zealand is quite autonomous compared to some of its European peers in that it is largely self-financed, and has a high degree of control over its revenue base (taxing ability), the boks are largely in the black, and there enough scope within the current legislation to pick some of the low hanging fruit. My fingers are crossed.

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