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Divided councils spurn simple fix

NICK VENTER
Last updated 07:20 31/10/2012
Geoffrey Palmer
JIM CHIPP

Change is in the air: Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who is leading the local governance review panel.

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OPINION: The Israeli attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, liquor laws, MPs' perks - former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer has tackled some contentious issues in recent years. You'd think sorting out local government in the Wellington region would be a doddle. And so it would be if politics hadn't intruded.

Of all the inquiries he's headed in recent years, Sir Geoffrey says the investigation into the structure of local government in the Wellington region - the findings of which were released yesterday - has been the most straightforward. Why? Because, both the problem and the solution are blindingly obvious.

The region has sunk into an economic torpor, lacking leadership, direction and purpose. While the new Auckland super- city surges ahead, Wellington's nine councils continue to act like independent principalities. Sometimes they co-operate, sometimes they get in each other's way and sometimes they deliberately obstruct each other.

The solution, according to the panel headed by Sir Geoffrey, is to create a new two-tier system of local government that enables local decisions to be made locally and regional decisions regionally.

Despite consulting widely and gaining widespread support for its proposals, the panel has no guarantee its recommendations will be implemented.

Wellington City Council, which refused to back the review, released an alternative plan a day ahead of the panel's report and other local bodies have made no secret of liking the way things are.

Sir Geoffrey says change is inevitable, but it is up to the public, business, institutions and local interest groups to drive it.

Local government is too important to be left to local-body politicians and officers as both groups "have a particular interest and that interest is not the same as that of the general public".

The panel, established in May, met all nine councils but only two - Greater Wellington and Porirua - backed its investigations.

You don't have to talk to Sir Geoffrey and fellow panel members Bryan Jackson and Sue Driver for long to realise they view the Wellington council's decision to release its own proposals a day ahead of the panel's report with deep suspicion.

"It seems to me that that's precisely the sort of silly political manoeuvring that should not characterise local government," Sir Geoffrey said yesterday.

"We need to have unity in this region and it seems profoundly interesting to me that you wouldn't do a proper programme of public engagement before you propose the least democratic option available with the least amount of enhanced local democracy."

The council's diagnosis of the region's ailments is similar to that of the panel. Local government in the region was not "broken or busted", chief executive Garry Poole said on Monday, but "certainly there is a more effective and efficient way forward".

However, the council's prescription is very different. Where the panel is recommending the formation of a Greater Wellington Council headed by a lord mayor and six local area councils each with their own mayor and councillors, Wellington City Council is championing a single body of up to 30 councillors.

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Mr Poole told The Dominion Post that a single layer of government would reduce confusion and encourage "direct engagement" between ratepayers and decision-makers.

However, Mr Jackson, a company director, said the panel's consultations revealed a strong local attachment to local areas that could not be preserved under the council model. There was a "hunger" for regional leadership, but people also wanted to retain local identity and local mayors to advocate on their behalf.

Ms Driver, a former Wellington city and Wellington regional councillor, said the region desperately needed someone to advocate on its behalf and ensure issues of regional significance were considered regionally. The panel's recommendations would enable that to happen while preserving local democracy.

THE local councils proposed by the panel bear some resemblance to the 21 elected boards that operate alongside the "super-city" council in Auckland, but there is an important difference. In Auckland, the local boards operate at the whim of Auckland Council, which delegates authority to them.

For Wellington, the panel is recommending that council powers and responsibilities be enshrined in statute.

Under its proposals, the local area councils would not have the power to set rates or employ staff directly, but they would be responsible for maintaining and enhancing local amenities, processing building consents and managing funds allocated for works and services in their area.

The other principal difference between the proposals is the future of Wairarapa.

Mr Poole said the poll commissioned by local bodies earlier this year showed 95 per cent of Wairarapa residents did not want to be part of a regional "super-city". There were arguments for and against, but they should not be forced to join against their will. However, the Palmer panel says Wairarapa is an integral part of the Wellington region and cannot afford to foot it alone. At present $11.5 million flows across the Rimutakas each year to fund work undertaken on behalf of Wairarapa residents by the regional council. The three Wairarapa councils should be merged into a single Wairarapa area council and the region included in Greater Wellington.

What happens next depends on how other local bodies react to the panel's recommendations.

Chief executives from affected councils are due to consider the panel's report and Wellington City's recommendations next Wednesday; councillors will air the issue at a regional hui on November 21; and the mayoral forum is also pencilled in.

If common ground is reached, it will be a simple matter to make a regional submission to the Local Government Commission, which, under legislation before Parliament, has the power, subject to some constraints, to approve a new structure. If not, the commission could find itself forced to make sense of conflicting proposals.

- The Dominion Post

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