There is much interest in the Palmer panel’s report on the review of Wellington local government, particularly the rejection of the Auckland super city model and of a unitary council. The panel said that this would result in an “intolerable loss of local democracy and a fracturing of local sense of community.”
The retention of existing council organisations and boundaries, except in the Wairarapa where the three existing district councils are looking to amalgamate, is sensible. As the report notes, existing councils “have built up around them particular and often distinct political cultures that suit the area in which they are situated.” Keeping these structures would also reduce huge transaction and financial costs like those involved in the Auckland amalgamation exercise.
The proposal to integrate two tiers of local government with a partnership approach is clever and potentially spreads and shares power, retains councillors’ representative function and ensures they remain accessible to constituents. Power will only be truly shared, however, if the area councils have more control over their own budgets and are able to strike their own rates or have a major influence on this decision by the new regional council.
The proposal that the staff of the regional and area councils be employed by one chief executive would see a centralisation of power and potentially a more bureaucratic and less accessible organisation. Ensuring that staff are located in the communities and neighbourhoods they serve, rather than one central Wellington office building would help avoid this.
It makes sense for natural resource and environmental management functions to stay with the regional council and service delivery and place creation to stay with city and district councils. However, the proposal that the new regional council would take over many city and district council functions such as provision of libraries, swimming pools, arts and culture would significantly reduce their current sphere of activity and influence. It also overlooks the role such facilities have in promoting a sense of place and community wellbeing.
More thought and discussion is needed around the relative split of functions between any regional and area councils so that the latter have real decision making power and are not just an enhanced version of Auckland local boards with their limited delegations.
The panel says its recommendations reflect the five major themes that emerged in engagement with stakeholders and the public, namely the desire:
- for a stronger regional voice
- to retain a local voice
- for more authentic local democracy
- not to have a single supercity
- for no more rates increases
There is no surprise in many not wanting rates increases. Though it would be good for some who complain about rates to reflect that they may be paying more each month to a telco for their broadband and phone services than they pay in rates to have water supplied, their sewage and greywater removed, waste removed and recycled, local streets and footpaths to walk and cycle on, libraries and swimming pools to visit and all the other services which councils provide. The value for money can be quite astounding when you think about this long list of underappreciated services that councils provide.
The panel’s recommendation that there be no rates increases for three years is arbitrary. An organisational culture which neglects investment in essential community and built infrastructure creates a maintenance and spending backlog for the future. Rather than arbitrary spending caps, central government needs to seriously engage with local government about options for revenue sharing such as a regional fuel tax to reduce councils’ reliance on rates.