Editor's View: Hutt cash cow for Wgtn?

Last updated 09:53 06/11/2012

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There is a great deal of worthwhile material in the final report issued last week by the Sir Geoffrey Palmer-led panel on local government, but the Hutt Valley's mayors are right: What's proposed is a super-city in drag.

The six councils that would sit under the proposed new Greater Wellington Council could be likened to glorified community boards. Without the power to raise funding, and able only to make recommendations to the regional body on anything of much importance, as Mayor Wayne Guppy aptly put it, the councils will be lame ducks.

The panel's most compelling arguments are that we lack a true regional voice to show leadership on major infrastructure issues and to deal with the Government, and there is sometimes wasteful duplication. Example: GROW Wellington is the council-controlled organisation set up to pursue regional economic development but each city and district council in the region continues its own work in that arena.

The result is that a unified approach is undermined, and mixed signals go out to businesses and industry.

The panel also makes a good case for a single resource management plan for the region to provide a single reference document for developers, businesses and others that currently face a plethora of district plans and differing rules.

But achieving unity on key regional issues - economic development, public and [major roads] land transport, water and wastewater - could be achieved by existing councils stopping dabbling in it themselves, and ceding these functions to the existing Greater Wellington Regional Council or truly regional CCOs.

The GWRC would be our "regional voice".

Sir Geoffrey said the panel's proposed new structure should help halt the decline of the region but has no evidence this would be so.

Claiming we are living on past glories - the Westpac Stadium, Wellington waterfront, Te Papa, the Dowse and Expressions and cultural events and innovative marketing such as Martinborough wine, Absolutely Positively Wellington and the Sevens - ignores the fact all of these were achieved under the existing council arrangements.

The wider economy has much more to do with the local slowdown than council structures.

Weakest of all - particularly from the Hutt's point of view - are the panel's assurances on money.

Talk about "vision", "strategies" and "leadership" is all very well but what matters to most people is the figure on their rates bill.

The panel talks of "potential" operational savings of up to 3.5 per cent - an average of $36 million a year across the region.

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That's a figure based on the potential savings that Auckland's super-city may or may not deliver; it's too soon to tell.

The panel admits that how a single rating system across the region might impact on individual areas is also an unknown.

It recommends no rates increase beyond the rate of inflation for the first three years of the new set up.

Big deal.

Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt have achieved that sort of fiscal prudence for a decade; Wellington and some other areas have not.

The panel acknowledges a strong theme in submissions that any savings by moving to a single regional authority could be swallowed up by spending on "nice to haves".

It also recommends debt be handled on a regional basis. Why on earth would Lower Hutt (borrowings per resident $703) and Upper Hutt ($650), thanks to a sustained commitment to keep costs down for its citizens, want to take on the past excesses of other cities such as Wellington ($2082 - total debt of $341 million and climbing, with looming leaky homes and earthquake risk problems) and Kapiti ($2926).

With the Government struggling to jam its local government amendment legislation through the House, and consensus on a Wellington super-city in any form seemingly far away, only time will tell if any change happens in time for the 2013 elections.

If there is a stay of execution, it is high time for the two cities of the Valley - so similar in terms of their challenges, outlook and approach to managing local affairs - to get serious about a union.

The next three years could serve as a test whether better regional co-operation can happen with a beefed up Greater Wellington Regional Council and truly regional CCOs, without the need for a super-city.

- Hutt News

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