Super-city debate rages onward

PAUL EASTON AND ANDREA O'NEIL
Last updated 09:04 17/05/2014

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A shadow war has been raging from Kapiti Island to Palliser Bay in the year since the guns fell quiet in the super-city debate.

Defying the Wairarapa overlords' desire to form a fiefdom, a rebel movement has been spreading south and west. Meanwhile, leaders in the Hutt Valley have dug their trenches even deeper, while the Kapiti Coast guards its neutrality.

But hostilities are about to break out again as the Local Government Commission updates the region next month on progress towards its future shape.

And though the guns may have been quiet, the strategic planning has been anything but. Carterton mayor Ron Mark, who favours a breakaway Wairarapa authority, is convinced the commission is marching towards a "pre- determined" super-city model.

"They've made it pretty clear that, as far as they are concerned, a super-city is the only option."

Ryan Malone, a Wairarapa public affairs specialist, is unashamed of his work to build a legion of super-city foot soldiers, by helping to establish pro- amalgamation lobby groups across the region.

Starting with Better Wairarapa a year ago, Malone has since founded "Better" groups in the Hutt Valley and Wellington, with Porirua and Kapiti groups to be launched in a fortnight. The groups promote a two-tier Wellington council with local boards.

"It's just about making sure people engage, and to make the case for amalgamation," Malone says.

"People take their cues from the civic leaders. If they say it's a dumb idea and you'll lose your identity, people listen to that."

When passions ran high about amalgamation in 2012 and 2013, residents of smaller cities found it difficult to swim against the anti- super-city tide, Malone says. Wairarapa businesses that relied on councils for their income were especially reluctant to speak out.

Malone sees his real opponent as apathy. "There seems to be a level of disinterest, of 'I assume this is going to happen, why do I need to get involved?' "

He believes it is important for the Local Government Commission to see demonstrable popular support for amalgamation. "I think they're not feeling the love [for a super- city], publicly."

Several councils in the region have opposed super-city amalgamation, but Malone says residents are wising up to the self- interest involved.

"I think that a lot of people in Wairarapa and the Hutt Valley have changed their opinion. All they were getting was positions from mayors and councillors who may not have jobs in two years' time."

But Lower Hutt mayor Ray Wallace dismisses the "Better" lobby groups as holding "very much the minority, not the majority view".

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"And that's fine - that's what democracy is all about."

Wallace points to the results of a Hutt Valley community survey and a Colmar Brunton poll which showed firm support for the status quo, with enhanced shared services, by most of the 7000 people who responded.

A United Hutt Valley is the preferred alternative if change is forced upon the region.

Wallace says he has seen little change in attitude. "What we are hearing is that people's views are much the same."

Wallace organised secret talks near Taupo in March, where 20 mayors and deputies discussed how to put a stop to super-cities.

A further meeting is planned next month, and will be open to the media and some invited politicians.

"Under current legislation it can be very difficult for communities to have a say in their future, if a reorganisation is planned," Wallace says.

Councils are already joining forces more than ever before, for example on water and economic development. "So there's no need to throw the baby out with the bath water and force change on people who don't want it."

Greater Wellington Regional Council chairwoman Fran Wilde is seen by many as the general of the pro-amalgamation army.

Without change, Wellington is "condemned to fragmentation", she says.

"Yes we're getting more shared services now - amalgamation has probably spurred this on, but a lot of it is sub-optimal in terms of the models. It's still nothing like Auckland."

Many people have felt change was inevitable, and are "just going about their business", she says.

"I think it's more likely than unlikely that there'll be some changes proposed by the commission, but what they are I wouldn't want to speculate."

Wilde says the public's final opinion on amalgamation may prove to be less clear-cut along regional boundaries than previously thought.

"I know people in Upper Hutt who are supportive of local government reform. There has also been a lot of speaking out against it, it's just mixed."

Greater Wellington councillor Sue Kedgley is keen to point out she wasn't on board when it fired off its submission to the Local Government Commission. The former Green Party MP is not convinced amalgamation will bring any real benefits.

Councils already collaborate on big-ticket items such as water supply and transport, she says. "My concern is for local democracy. Local boards would be completely subservient to the super-city.

"It's quite clear that Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt, and the Wairarapa don't want it. It's going to be up to the people of Wellington, really, and that's how it should be."

In Porirua, mayor Nick Leggett says a decade is too long to wait for councils to unite on basic infrastructure.

Water management company Capacity was formed 10 years ago, and still only four Wellington councils have signed up.

"Ten years to achieve that, and it's just one service. What about roading, transport, planning, rating, libraries, swimming pools?"

Anti-supercity politicians are holding back the region, Leggett says. "People build whole careers out of stopping things from happening.

"When you look at our regional GDP, productivity, business growth - if you had one council for the region, we wouldn't be in the bottom two or three performing regions in the country."

Residents should look critically at what their councils achieve now, and how much more could be done if the region's resources were pooled, Leggett says.

"Local government boundaries don't define communities. There are 321 operative plans over [Wellington's] nine councils, and ratepayers are paying for the development and administration of those plans, which are competing and not speaking to each other.

"Auckland has nine or 10 plans. It's wasting money and progress to stay as we are."

Wellington mayor Celia Wade- Brown backs a big single-tier council with a mayor and 29 councillors.

"If there is to be change I prefer a simple model [but] the decision must be made by the public," she says.

She believes there is confusion about the extent of local boards' influence under a two-tier system. "The more decision-making power the local boards have, the more the current system, with its tensions and complexities, is replicated. The less power they have, the more it's like democratic window-dressing.

"I'm still sympathetic for having one decision-making body for urban transport rather than the continuing complexity of decision-making of the current two-tier structure."

In Wairarapa, Ron Mark says local feeling has swung around to a fondness for the status quo. They're saying "actually, we're pretty happy."

People are still backing a unitary authority proposed by the three local councils, but would reject any attempt to "lump" Wellington and Wairarapa together. "It would be a no from the public."

Kapiti Coast residents who were initially enthusiastic about amalgamation have cooled on the idea since 2013, mayor Ross Church says.

They were evenly split when polls were conducted a year ago, but as the Auckland super-city has bedded in, amalgamation is looking less successful and less appealing, he says. "It's not as clear-cut as it once was."

Nonetheless, he believes Wellington councils need to stop competing parochially, and instead assess together where assets such as the proposed Petone Arena are most logically placed.

In November, the Local Government Commission released its proposal for one council for the whole of Hawke's Bay with its headquarters in Napier.

The commission says the move could save the region's ratepayers between $5 million and $10m, replacing five councils with one. However, just 21 people attended submissions on arguably the biggest issue facing Hawke's Bay this week.

Upper Hutt mayor Wayne Guppy said he didn't expect that sort of apathy. A proposal for amalgamation would have people "marching in the town".

More than two years of consultation on regional governance found no appetite for amalgamation in Upper Hutt City Council. "People have made their opinion very clear, and nothing has changed. It's been a bit quiet lately but people will soon fire up."

More than 1500 Upper Hutt residents recently signed a petition against a super-city merger.

As Upper Hutt Keep it Local spokeswoman Teresa Homan says, the Local Government Commission's next move is "critically important".

Amalgamation would see communities stripped of local assets, with local boards powerless to make any major decisions for the good of their region, she says. "They would have to go cap in hand to the super-city."

Homan vowed to keep fighting the super-city.

"We'll do whatever we can to oppose it."

Waterfront Auckland chairman Sir Bob Harvey came to Wellington in March to peddle the super-city message. A six-term mayor of Waitakere, he lost the mayoral chains with the creation of Auckland Council in 2010, but says the city gained an identity.

"It's been given a single voice, to deal with government. [It has delivered] a better community that [people] can celebrate being part of a city that is alive and culturally well. They haven't lost anything."

Wellington needs to give amalgamation a go, he says.

"Keep an open mind. It is better to have a positive Wellington and not a Wellington weakened by the strength of Auckland and Christchurch."

Wellington restaurateur Mike Egan is a member of Better Wellington, and says amalgamation has been built up into something much more scary than it really is. "I can remember when I lived in Eastbourne and they talked about the amalgamation with Hutt City - all of Eastbourne was up in arms, but the sky hasn't fallen in and, if you asked people now, they probably couldn't even remember the debate."

SUPER-CITY SCHEDULE

The Local Government Commission is preparing a decision on the best model for Wellington's regional governance. It expects to give a progress report in June. When it issues its decision, it will either recommend the status quo or propose a draft model for amalgamation.

The public will then have about two months to make submissions on the draft proposal.

The commission will hold public hearings for those who want to speak to their submissions.

It will then consider what Wellingtonians want, as well as which governance model best suits the region, and eventually make a final decision, probably early next year.

The public will then be able to trigger a binding referendum on the decision, if 10 per cent of voters in any one territorial authority request it through a petition.

Disputed borders - what they want:

The region's councils have made the following applications to the Local Government Commission:

Wairarapa: A single body to unite the Masterton, Carterton and South Wairarapa councils.

Lower Hutt: The status quo with more shared services; will tolerate a united Hutt Valley council.

Upper Hutt: The status quo alongside more shared services.

Greater Wellington Regional Council: A single super-city council with two tiers, including Wairarapa.

Porirua: A two-tier super-city, supporting Greater Wellington's application.

Wellington: A one-tier system, with a separate Wairarapa council.

Kapiti Coast: The status quo.

- The Dominion Post

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