No demand for a Wellington super-city

SUE KEDGLEY
Last updated 05:00 06/11/2012
Lord Mayor

Grand name: One proposal for the Wellington area is to have a Lord Mayor of Wellington, imitating the Lord Mayor of London.

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OPINION: The Lord Mayor of Wellington. It has a certain ring to it - of gold chains, status, sexism and ancient privilege.

But why would we want to import an ancient English title that originates in medieval England, into Wellington? Does Sir Geoffrey Palmer imagine this title would make people think our Mayor was more important than Auckland's Mayor?

There are other facets of Sir Geoffrey's report on the review of local government in Wellington that are questionable as well.

Sir Geoffrey noted that there is "widespread aversion" in Wellington to the Auckland super-city model, and insisted his panel had come up with something quite different.

But a close scrutiny of their proposal reveals that it is almost the same as the Auckland super-city, with three small differences.

Firstly, the Wellington Mayor would have the ludicrous title of the Lord Mayor of Wellington. But aside from the title, the mayor would have exactly the same powers as the Mayor of Auckland.

Secondly, it would be up to the council to decide how many council controlled organisations, if any, it would set up.

Thirdly, the functions of the second tier of local councils the panel proposes, will be set out in law. This is not the case in Auckland where local boards have no legal power, and exist purely at the pleasure of the Auckland Council. Any functions they have are delegated to them by the Auckland super-city, and can be removed at any time.

Giving local councils legal status is therefore an improvement on the Auckland model. Unfortunately, however, the powers the panel proposes for local councils are so limited, they will be just as feeble and hamstrung as Auckland local boards.

They won't be able to generate their own income or rates, and they won't have any designated staff of their own. The Wellington Council will decide how much, or how little, local councils can spend, and it will be able to override local councils on almost any issue.

These tiddly powers are unlikely to satisfy the citizens.

A Wairarapa resident summed up what are no doubt the sentiments of many, in a recent posting on kiwiblog. "From my contact with the Local Wairarapa District Council, it seems to function excellently. Our town is well-kept and in a good state of repair, and the rates are not excessive."

"I don't see how we would benefit from being subsumed into some giant bureaucratic Wellington super-city."

His comments highlight another problem with the panel's proposal - namely, that there is no grassroots clamour to amalgamate local councils into a Wellington super-city. Nor is there any widespread dissatisfaction with the way most local councils are performing.

Residents associations are not calling for amalgamation. Nor are the residents of Upper or Lower Hutt, or Kapiti. Many can't see how their local communities would benefit from having most of the powers and functions of their local councils absorbed by a super council on which they would have only one vote.

In the absence of any real grass roots demand for change, the super-city proposal is being driven by a relatively small group of people, backed by the business community.

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And while Sir Geoffrey insists that his panel has a unique mandate because it is independent and does not have a vested interest in local government, this is not really the case.

The panel was set up, after all, by the Wellington Regional Council, and paid for by the council. So it's not surprising that it is proposing a greatly enhanced role for the regional council. This is, after all, exactly what the Chair of the regional council, Fran Wilde, has been pushing for some time.

Certainly, there seems to be an emerging consensus in the region for far greater co-operation and shared services between councils, for more effective regional leadership and the ability for the region to speak with one voice.

But I, for one, am not convinced that the panel has come up with the best way to achieve this.

That's why it's crucial that any change in structure is agreed to by Wellingtonians in a referendum, and not imposed upon us by a small group of people who are pushing for a Wellington version of the Auckland super-city.

- Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.

- The Dominion Post

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