Wellington risks becoming 'backwater' - former PM

Wellington risks becoming a "backwater" as the centre of economic gravity moves to a resurgent Auckland, former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer warns.

He said his final report, as head of a panel advising on the future of local government in the Wellington region, was unlikely to recommend a wholesale merger of the region's councils into a "super-city".

But the panel believed the area covered by Greater Wellington regional council needed to operate as a single unit on issues such as the environment and transport, and in particular to advocate for the region's economy, he said.

"In the situation that pertains here, where the possibility of becoming a backwater is very real in our judgment, there does need to be a strong advocacy function for the economy that's visible, clear and authoritative."

Auckland's super-city had created an advocacy function that was "established and powerful", he told a business audience in Wellington yesterday that included Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown and Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett.

"The Auckland economic powerhouse has got going without any of the inhibitions that it used to have from its warring factions of local government," Sir Geoffrey said.

Significant government spending was also being directed towards Christchurch as part of a post-earthquake rebuild.

"What the panel is concerned about is where does that leave Wellington? And we think it leaves it in a rather unfortunate position. We do think that the [Wellington] economy is not in a good position at the moment and the region is struggling to maintain its competitive advantage."

The panel is set to issue a report on its findings to the Greater Wellington and Porirua councils by the end of October. It will then issue a recommendation to the Local Government Commission.

Seven other councils within the region have refused to take part in the process.

Sir Geoffrey said Wellington's position was slipping, with economic growth, employment and retail spending all lagging behind the rest of the country.

The independent panel, which includes project manager Sue Driver, senior public servant Sir Wira Gardiner, and businessman Bryan Jackson, has been holding meetings around the region.

Sir Geoffrey said many ratepayers had already made it clear that they opposed a complete council merger because they feared a loss of local representation. Trips to Auckland had uncovered a "loss of democratic control at local level", he said, with 21 community boards, representing about 80,000 people each, holding no statutory power, and no funds to spend "except that which the mayor gives them".

"It seems to the panel that that is perhaps not a satisfactory structure, and we don't think that the Auckland model could be transported to Wellington in the form that it's in.

"One thing that Auckland proves beyond any doubt is that one size does not fit all.

"You really have to devise a system that allows people at the grassroots to have their say."

The closing date to make submissions to the panel is September 21.

The Dominion Post