Governing Northland

The Local Government Commission yesterday released its proposal for restructuring local government in Northland,  a big step in a process that was set in motion by the former mayor of Far North District Council.  The Commission’s proposal is to establish one unitary authority to replace FNDC, Whangarei  and Kaipara District Councils, and the Northland Regional Council.

The Council would have nine councillors elected from seven wards, and a mayor elected at large.  Local voices, we are told, would be heard by way of seven community boards. There would also be a Maori Board, made up of the Mayor and three councillors, and representatives from each of thirteen iwi from across Te Tai Tokerau. The Maori Board would have advisory status only, but not  any decision making power.

I have advocated for the maintenance of a two tier model of local government, with strong autonomous local councils and a regional council – the latter perhaps with a little more authority to break any deadlocks that might occur if councils cannot agree about infrastructure or other issues that cross boundaries.

The unitary authority – community board model is not genuinely ‘two tier’, given that the community boards would have no effective power to do much more than manage the local hall or public toilets, and would be resourced only by grace and favour of the council.

I think that the timing is completely wrong to be considering radical structural change.  The LGC acknowledges that the existing councils are viable in the short term (the Kaipara financial shambles notwithstanding) so there is no urgency to affect change.

A few weeks ago Northlanders elected new Mayors for Whangarei and the Far North; there is a new Chair of the NRC, and these three (along with the commissioners running Kaipara) have committed to putting the divisiveness of previous years behind them and to work together in the interests of all of Northland.  There is a real possibility that peace might break out, and I believe our newly elected representatives should be give an opportunity to make good on their commitment to a more unified approach.

The danger is that we are about to embark on a difficult, uncertain and expensive restructure, when all that might be needed is for better relationships based on respect and goodwill to be established within and between the councils and communities of interests (including of course a significant role for iwi Maori).

Submissions on the proposal maybe made until February 14th, so now is a good time to consider the options and make your views known.


4 Comments Posted

  1. To quote from a contribution from Tom Watkins to a newspaper debate on a proposed Tasman and Nelson merger.


    To put the proposed amalgamation in broader context, the National Government’s view of the economic downturn is driving a mission to downsize state and local body agencies by reorganising or merging them. The push is to ” . . . reprioritise activities and drop lower-priority ones, find efficiencies . . , pool resources . . . and contract out.” The belief is that reorganisation will “cut costs and improve management.” [NZ political commentator Colin James, 13.3.2010]

    Fat chance. Efficiencies and better management are the least likely outcomes. Most of the targeted agencies have been through this before in one form or another, and have eventually washed up at the same place, in need (someone decides) of further reorganising.

    Safer to predict heavy costs: “[Reorganising] . . . puts jobs at risk, damages morale, temporarily reduces productivity, sometimes compromises operational capacity and loses institutional knowledge, forcing the costly reinvention of many wheels.” [Colin James]

    James calls these “a downside” of reorganisation, but they are counter-productive at best. Constituents without ability to resist or influence the process live through slow motion catastrophes.

    Most restructuring initiatives involve trying to do the wrong thing (business as usual without regard to the causes of systemic problems), better (with reduced resources) – unless of course there’s a different, undeclared agenda. It’s an example of implementing a “solution” that has little or no bearing on what causes the problem, only to create further problems.

    Organisational change initiatives should really address causes of systemic dysfunctionality such as these:

    A tendency to overly focus on achieving business purpose without developing capacity for the constituents’ involvement and contribution to it.

    Efficiency drives based on economic-centredness, rather than constituency-centred functionality and effectiveness.

    The craving of those who already hold power to maintain and extend their ability to control, rather than create opportunities for greater and more transparent democracy.

    Overlaps and hazy boundaries between governance and operations.

    Improvisational or misdirected planning, leadership, and relationships-building practices.

    Problem-solving and conflict resolution practices which create or exacerbate problems.

  2. Has the LGC ever met a council merger proposal it did not like the look of? It is a council amalgamation fan club.

    It is particularly fond of the unitary model (where regional councils are part of the merger territorial councils).

    The only thing of note in this case, their approach being very predictable,

    1. recent legislative change makes it harder for locals to oppose amalgamations imposed on them by others. Thus there is a the suggestion that reform is more likely so people have to just accept it.

    2. in Northland they want to quarantine existing debt to existing areas, to prevent opposition to amalgamation based on taking on the cost of debt of other areas.

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