Now not the time to talk merger

Last updated 13:00 20/12/2013

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OPINION: It's often said that timing is everything in politics. Eighteen months ago a bold attempt to combine Nelson and Tasman into one super-council foundered. Nelson people backed the idea but Tasman voters were suspicious, the model was suspect - flawed, even - and the referendum didn't get close to bringing change.

Why, then, with the council reform frying pan well and truly cold, has Nelson lawyer Rick Farr tried to turn the stove back on? The move has come out of the blue. Even local leaders who identify with the pro-amalgamation philosophy seem dubious. Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese questions the timing and says right now in the political cycle is the time for councils to focus on their annual and long-term plans.

Reopening the amalgamation worm can would be an unwelcome distraction as her council grapples with, among other things, what to do about the Trafalgar Centre and now Nelson School of Music, retaining the heart of the CBD, keeping rates affordable and the heart of Nelson strategy tracking along, while settling in a new council team is a big enough task.

Nelson MP and Cabinet minister Nick Smith has long been talking up the advantages of a single district council for the province. However, he says other areas - Northland, Hawke's Bay, Coromandel and Wellington - are more advanced in their amalgamation discussions than Nelson-Tasman.

No surprise that Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne is even less impressed, given his strong opposition to the previous merger attempt. And, as he points out, the two new councils are working in well together at staff and elected representative level, as was largely happening last term despite the heat generated by the amalgamation battle.

Legislative changes since the last failed attempt here a year-and-a-half ago might as well be tested elsewhere, before any fresh attempt is made here to reheat the cauldron.

Farr says he has the backing of several businessmen who are concerned that the issue should not be left to lie where it is. He is taking advantage of a section of the law reform which makes it easier to request that the Local Government Commission consider new governance models for regions.

It is no longer necessary to approach the commission with a petition. Previously, it required the signatures of at least 10 per cent of the registered voters of separate council areas to galvanise the commission into action.

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In one way Farr is right to keep the matter alive. The fundamental reasons for local government reform remain. A stronger district could emerge, in keeping with moves elsewhere in New Zealand, and the right model, with appropriately empowered community boards, could strengthen local representation compared with what happens currently. But now is not the time. A strategy which included a referendum with the next elections in three years would make more sense.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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