Keep your hands off our city

Hopefully those wanting amalgamation in Wellington have learned the lessons of Auckland.
Hopefully those wanting amalgamation in Wellington have learned the lessons of Auckland.

Despite occasionally coming across as a liberal basil-growing Leftie, I am, like most Kiwi blokes, deeply conservative most of the time.

If my wife wants to rearrange the lounge furniture, my default setting is to be trenchantly opposed. Why not just keep things as they are? However, when the lounge is looking much improved, I will be the first to applaud the change.

So when politicians started talking about local body amalgamation, I had to keep my natural conservatism in check. I remembered I was dead against Westpac Stadium. Yet, located at the hub of our public transport system, it's been a stunning success.

Could a Wellington super city be another winning idea?

Amalgamation can save an organisation. You increase your base, and because you are bigger, you have access to more expertise. And economies of scale can lead to increased efficiencies. So why am I so reluctant to embrace the idea of amalgamation?

When National came into power in 2008, Rodney Hide, a fully paid-up member of the We Know What's Good For You Brigade, decided Auckland's local bodies needed to amalgamate, and fast.

He may have been right. Auckland is a relatively flat expanse of former villages which had many small and inefficient local bodies. Did the suburb of Mt Roskill really need a mayor? Mr Hide was not the first Aucklander to see advantages in amalgamation. But it was the manner of the amalgamation that was the problem. Taking a leaf out of Roger Douglas's book, Hide acted swiftly and with little consultation.

Auckland got its super city in record time. But in the process the Government managed to alienate not only the Maori Party over Maori wards, but most Aucklanders as well. As for the Hide-created CCOs (council- controlled organisations), such as the council-controlled investment company running the Ports of Auckland, they are highly undemocratic and have already led to considerable problems.

I suspect Aucklanders were so irritated by the manner of the super city amalgamation, that they voted for Len Brown, just to teach central government a lesson. Mr Hide's Auckland amalgamation plan was a case study in how not to get a local community on side.

Hopefully those wanting amalgamation in Wellington have learned the lessons of Auckland. If there are advantages point them out to us. Don't haughtily tell us that if we don't favour amalgamation then we're a bunch of lefty Luddites.

Wellington is also a very different geographical case to Auckland. Wairarapa is a distinct (and vast) geographical region with a different climate, economy and culture to the rest of the region. Asking someone living in a one-bedroom Featherston cottage to subsidise a cultural facility in Kelburn, or vice-versa, might be asking a bit much.

The case for amalgamation was hardly helped with the recent wheeling out of Sir Michael Fowler and Dame Margaret Bazley as advocates. My memories of Sir Michael's tenure as mayor was the loss of several beautiful old city buildings (but luckily not the old town hall) and his hysterical reaction to Wellington declaring itself a nuclear-free zone. Dame Margaret's latest gig was to chair Environment Canterbury after the Government replaced the democratically elected board with commissioners. She's an experienced administrator but I'm not sure she'd be my go-to person in consultations about local democracy.

Clearly the We Know What's Good For You Brigade favour amalgamation, but that doesn't mean it's a bad thing.

Fran Wilde, who showed real leadership in getting Westpac Stadium constructed, is also in favour. But so far, no-one has made the argument for amalgamation so compellingly that the citizens of our region see it as urgent and necessary.

Until you do, and get our express permission to amalgamate, please keep your hands off rearranging our local body furniture, even if it might be good for us in the long run.

The Dominion Post