OPINION: The structure of local government in the country's largest cities is under the closest scrutiny it has had in decades.
Driven by increasing ratepayer resistance to relentless inflation in rates, coupled with awareness that the existing arrangements have not adjusted sufficiently to produce the most efficient delivery of services, large-scale changes are being advocated and made.
In Auckland, the creation of the Auckland Council to govern a united "super-city" was pushed through by the Government in the teeth of stiff opposition from some incumbent councils.
In Wellington, a group of local-body politicians has commissioned a panel under the chairmanship of former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer to examine the issue. The panel has come up with a contentious proposal for a two-tier arrangement which its proponents insist is not a "super-city", although the impartial observer might be forgiven for thinking that it looks for all the world as though it is.
In Canterbury, in all the turmoil caused by the earthquakes and the suspension of Environment Canterbury, the issue has not been a burning one recently. But it is precisely the turmoil caused by those events that make it inevitable that it will have to be faced, sooner rather than later.
In Wellington the matter has been given urgency by the perception that the region, which has been hit by sharply leaner spending after nine fat years under Labour, is stagnating while the Auckland super-city surges ahead. Aggravating this decline, it has been alleged, has been the tendency of the local councils in the area to get in one another's way or deliberately obstruct one another as often as they co- operate.
It is, in Palmer's view, obviously a mess. The solution, he believes, is equally obvious: two tiers of local government - a Greater Wellington Council, headed by a lord mayor, and six elected local area councils, each with its own mayor and councillors. The local bodies would advocate for their areas, but only the bigger body would have the power to levy rates. To the outside observer, the local councils look very much like an inefficient sop to those who would otherwise yelp about an alleged erosion of democracy.
Whatever the merits or defects of the Palmer plan, the issue has become a politically charged one. His panel was appointed by one faction in Wellington local government and only two of the nine councils involved co-operated with it. On the day the plan was released, the current Wellington City Council produced its own rival plan. Such wrangling is perhaps inevitable, particularly where so many of those involved have interests to defend, but it does not augur well for reorganisation here.
That something must be done here is inescapable. ECan was suspended at the petition of other local bodies because it had become dysfunctional. Christchurch city has been radically reshaped by the earthquakes, with a large chunk of its population moving to areas governed by other local bodies. Its expenditure is under heavy strain and its revenue has been hit.
The Government has promised a review of ECan's governance in 2014 but before then voters and politicians should be turning their minds to the opportunity the situation provides to determine the matter for ourselves. The method should be to involve as much of the community as possible, with the aim of creating a vitally needed, bigger, more efficient local government for the region.
- The Press