Amalgamation - debate, not slanging match, needed

Last updated 10:27 20/11/2012

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C'mon Lower Hutt, let's get real. We're the second-biggest city in the region and should be a leading player in regional debates. But where is the reasoned argument from our leaders about local government reform, surely the biggest issue facing the city, and region, in decades?

In last week's Hutt News, Roger Styles gave a fine example of playing the player, not the ball. It's time we put aside our parochial interests, our narrow focus, and had an adult debate about where the region is going, and how best to get there. The report produced by an independent panel chaired by Sir Geoffrey Palmer has the makings of a sound possible solution.

I've lived in the Hutt Valley all my life, most of it in Lower Hutt, but, like many, my family are spread throughout Upper Hutt, Kapiti, Wellington, Porirua and the Wairarapa. My working life, my family, sporting, recreational and social life have also covered all these areas. The reality is, we're all one town, one region.

Some people say, Is there really a need for change? ''Why fix what's not broken?'' No, it's not broken, but we could be doing things an awful lot better. There are so many opportunities going begging, and one reason we can't seize them is our local government structure, one that does not allow us to be nimble and dynamic and all sing off the same sheet. (Auckland, by the way, is now singing more and more with one voice, as a result of the changes there.)

To see what others can do, look at what's happening among the district health boards in the region.

Last month, dramatic organisational changes were announced. There will be one chief executive for the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa DHBs. Hospital services in the Hutt and Wairarapa will operate as a single unit. Collaboration between them and the Wellington and Kenepuru hospitals will ensure the best use of the clinical resources. The needs of patients, not organisations, will take priority. Nurses, doctors and other health professionals are welcoming the chance to work together across the artificial barriers of geography. Board members support the changes because it will make best use of scarce resources.

Compare that with the glacial speed of progress in achieving greater co-operation among local councils. One example: for years we've known we could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by centralising the mailing out of rates demands. It's never happened. Finally, we've managed to centralise our Civil Defence teams, something so obviously useful and necessary to deal with natural disasters, which pay no heed of our local government boundaries.

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Most councils want to keep on doing their own thing. But ask anyone setting up a business or doing property development work across those boundaries how they feel about this business-as-usual approach, and you'll get a tirade of frustration about different rules, different time scales and different charges to do exactly the same thing.

Change is coming whether we like it or not. The Government is in the middle of passing legislation that will make local body changes much easier. Their focus is on efficiency. We can be more efficient, and the Independent Panel suggests a way to do that - all the while ensuring a strong and real local democracy.

Here's how it could work: The panel proposes a two-tier system - an elected mayor of the entire region, sitting with elected representatives from the various areas (the number of representatives proportionate to the population of the individual cities and districts). They would look after the big regional stuff - a regional spatial plan, economic development, public transport and a transport, network, natural resource planning and the ''three waters'' (drinking water, stormwater, wastewater) - things that need to be done regionally, and paid for regionally.

Local area councils, responding to local voices, would prepare their own plans and budgets, which would be brought together in a regional plan and budget. There would be one administration for the whole region, but with local services such as resource consents, inspections, maintenance and so on delivered locally, according to a common set of policies and procedures.

The beauty of this approach is that it retains local councils and local community leaders, who engage with their communities just as they do now. At the same time it allows the vital region-wide work to be done properly, and done well.

Wellington City Council staff have put up a similar proposal, but with a single tier. The merits of each of them can be thrashed out, but the key thing is that we have sensible, reasoned debate and search for common ground. Already everyone agrees the status quo is simply not an option.


- Peter is Deputy Chair of the Regional Council, representing Lower Hutt since 2004. He has been on the Hutt Valley DHB since 2000, its Chair for seven years till 2010. He is also the appointed Deputy Chair of Capital & Coast DHB. Born and bred in Upper Hutt, he's lived in Lower Hutt since 1981 and was a Hutt City Councillor.

- Hutt News


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