Wellington Supercity: Let The Public Decide

From a Council perspective, we firmly believe that our people should dictate the future shape of our district and region. Kapiti Mayor, Ross Church

Let the voices of the Wellington region be heard through the proper process. Paula Bennett, Minister of Local Government

The Auckland model suitable for us?

By Roger Childs

Auckland CouncilThe Commission for Local Government has come up with an amalgamation blueprint for Wellington very similar to the Auckland experiment. However, north of the Bombay Hills it’s hard to find a great deal of enthusiasm for New Zealand’s first super-city administration.

There are claims that a lot of money has been saved, but the claimants are hazy on the details. Real concerns have been expressed that the 21 local boards have had their authority undermined and their funding eroded, thereby increasing the power of the central Auckland Council. Increases in rates well above the rate of inflation have also been a major worry.

Also there have been various unheralded groups set up by the central council since amalgamation, such as the Auckland Volcanic Cones Authority. Would Wellington’s equivalent be a Fault Lines Commission?

We’re different down here

Wellington local bodiesThe Greater Wellington Region (GWR) is very different from the 1.5 million Auckland metropolis. For starters, the GWR has about one third the population. Also geographically, parts of the region are divided by significant physical features like the Rimutakas which separate the Wairarapa from the Hutt Valley.

Currently the GWR has eight separate local government bodies: Wellington, Porirua, Kapiti, Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt,  South Wairarapa,  Carterton and Masterton.

All these areas have representation on the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC), which has responsibility for environment management, flood protection, land management, provision of regional parks, planning and funding of public transport.

For the Kapiti District, this includes involvement in vital areas such as

  • commuter train services
  • Queen Elizabeth Park
  • Waikanae and Otaki River flood protection.

Amalgamation cartoonThe case for change

The region needs leadership that can lobby powerfully for it. It also needs a coherent vision for how it will remain energetic and attractive in the coming decades. That is a task better suited to one mayor and 21 councillors instead of the current tangle of local, often head butting chiefs. “The Dominion Post”, December 5 2014

What would the changes be?

  • One mayor
  • A central council of 21 members from eight wards – Rongotai, Lambton, Ohariu, Porirua-Tawa, Kapiti Coast, Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt and Wairarapa. This council would be responsible for high-level, region-wide matters.
  • A local board in each ward with between six to 10 elected members, which would be responsible for local decisions.

Fran WildePresent chair of the Greater Wellington Regional Council, Fran Wilde, is supportive. It [the report] noted that Wellington has been consistently trailing national economic indicators for ten years now and we have to do something about it. I think this will be an enormous help.

She would no doubt be tossing her hat in the ring for the mayoralty, if amalgamation goes ahead.

However, of the present local body leaders no-one is enthusiastic.

The case against

The present majors have raised a number of concerns about what might happen:

  • local boards will have little power or control
  • Wellington’s place as the powerhouse of development will be weakened
  • services will decline in the regions
  • rates will spiral out of control
  • local democracy will be lost.

Obviously it would also be expensive to set up: a figure of $180 million has been mentioned!

There is a strong argument for keeping the existing structure, with perhaps a close look at the organisation of the Wairarapa. It’s hard to argue for retaining three mayors in an area with a population less than most of the other regions.

There is general agreement that, although the Greater Wellington Regional Council is generally efficient in managing the cross-district infrastructure and services, its powers could be strengthened without undermining the authority of existing councils. The GWRC could be enlarged and many Kapiti people would like to see our area represented by two voices.

Will the people decide?

Amalgamation LabourHopefully yes, however the numbers who vote in council elections shows that there is a lot of apathy about local government.

Nothing will happy quickly and there is a submission process running through to the beginning of March next year. If more than 10% of the voters in any of the existing council area request a referendum, there will a binding ballot later next year on whether there will be amalgamation.

At the national level the major political parties are in agreement for once: the people should decide in a democratic vote.