Northland is at the frontline of the National Government’s proposals for a brave new world of super-sized councils – big new unitary councils – as part of its agenda to centralise local government decision making, concentrate power, and weaken local democracy.
If recent public meetings in Dargaville, Whangarei, and Kerikeri which David Clendon and I spoke at are any indication, there is growing opposition to the Local Government Commission’s proposed re-organisation of Northland’s councils.
Those attending made it very clear that they valued local democracy where councils are connected and responsive to their communities. People want Northland’s councils to improve their organisational cultures, and co-operate and work more closely together but without losing their local identity and character.
The Local Government Commission’s proposal involves major change with no clear or substantive analysis of the problem or the case for change. The Commission proposes replacing the four existing councils, three mayors, one chair and 39 councillors (if Kaipara’s former councillors are included) with one powerful unitary council with nine councillors and a mayor.
The Commission’s proposal would give the major decision making powers over millions of dollars of community assets in Northland, from improving water supply and sewage infrastructure to whether to hold onto port company shares, to just 10 people. That’s much less democratic than the status quo because it would concentrate power in the hands of a very few.
Another major flaw is the proposed replacement of existing competent councils with seven community boards. Boards have very limited powers, little statutory recognition and could be dissolved at any time.
The Auckland model of local boards would be possible in Northland under the Government’s proposed changes to the Local Government Act currently before Parliament. Local boards would be a poor substitute for Northland’s existing councils because their powers are substantially less than those of councils.
Local boards’ powers are limited to non-regulatory matters such as service standards for parks and libraries. Boards cannot set rates, they cannot make bylaws, acquire, hold or dispose of property or employ staff.
The Commission’s unitary model would take the local out of local government in Northland. Critical decisions about the level of rates, council budgets and expenditure, whether to maintain or privatise council assets, and what planning rules and by-laws should apply would be made by the 10 member council, not the seven boards.
Each councillor in Northland currently represents an average of 3,897 people. Under the Commission’s proposal, each councillor would represent an average of 16,888 people spread over a large geographic area.
A centralised council based in Whangarei would mean weaker links between councillors and voters. It would make councillors less accessible and potentially less responsive to local views and concerns.
The Auckland supercity model had some logic for 1.4 million people living on the Auckland isthmus in an area of around 531 square kms. In Northland, where a population the tenth the size of Auckland is spread over an area 20 times larger, it makes no sense. Sewage and drinking water supplies are separate and cannot be readily connected as they can in Auckland.
Re-instating central government assistance for small communities to upgrade their wastewater schemes and the drinking water supply subsidy scheme (both of which National has slashed) is likely to be more useful to Northland communities such as Kaikohe and Rawene than a super-sized Auckland style council.
Strong local democracy with engaged communities and a healthy environment are the engine room of our success as a country. A major restructuring of local government a la Auckland is not the solution for Northland’s demographic and economic challenges.
If public submissions show that there is no “demonstrable community support” for the Commission’s proposal it cannot proceed. Submissions are important and close on 21 February.