Super City - or Super Mess

Central Government is speeding into the stormy waters of local government in Auckland. History suggests it’s heading for trouble. Commonsense says more haste – less speed

Love it or lump it, Auckland is too big for New Zealand to ignore.

The broad Auckland metro-zone is home to a third of all New Zealanders, our major international gateway, largest domestic market, biggest regional generator of wealth, and, probably, our biggest problem.

If we want to achieve economic recovery in New Zealand, then Auckland needs to clear its arteries and start pumping.

Right now, it’s choking. It's “a dog” says one of its seven mayors. In typical Westie fashion Waitakere city’s Bob Harvey says what should be New Zealand’s leading world city has engaged in “decades of feudal squabbling that pulled New Zealand back when it should have been steaming ahead.”

Everyone agrees the current hydra-headed system of local government in Auckland has had its day.

The latest plan for change looks a little like Auckland the way it was supposed to be in 1963. Then, the country’s first Regional Authority was established to provide a uniting umbrella over some 29 territorial local authorities in Auckland.

By 1985, Labour’s new local government minister, Michael Bassett was being pummeled by 21 Auckland mayors all complaining that the Regional Authority was too big and powerful – “a monster out of control”.

They got a response – but not what they wanted. A nationwide programme of local government amalgamations reduced the number of local councils in Auckland from 29 to 7 and expanded the scope of regional authority activity.

In 1990, National swept in – and its local government minister Warren Cooper started reining in the Regional Authority, requiring it to focus on planning and regulatory functions and established a Regional Services Trust to hold, manage, and/or sell ARA commercial assets such as shareholdings in the Ports of Auckland, the Yellow Bus Company, and Watercare Services.

Auckland’s local successionists were revitalized by this turn of events, to the point where even the Local Government Association – representing local authority interests – became alarmed.

Cooper’s successor as local government minister – John Banks – listened to the warnings of looming fractionalization and strengthened the law to stem a tide of breakaway plans being hatched by the successionists.

Meantime, the Auckland Regional Services Trust was emerging as a problem. It was holding onto assets that central government believed it ought to sell to relieve some of the mounting pressure on ratepayers. The Trust was “retired” in 1998 – and the National Government suffered the same fate at the voters’ hands a year later.

Labour managed two strikes on Auckland local government – in 2004 when it replaced ARST”s successor, Infrastructure Auckland, with a transport authority and an asset-holding organization, and in 2007 when it set in motion the Royal Commission to review the workability of local government arrangements in Auckland. It vanished before the Royal Commission finished the job.

All this is to illustrate a simple point: significant reforms of local government in Auckland have a tendency to be linked to significant changes of central government – a message that John Key and Rodney Hyde will no doubt receive in weeks to come.

The National-Act section of our governing coalition is currently hell-bent on achieving the dissolution of the Auckland Regional Council and the remaining seven territorial local authorities and creating the new Auckland ‘Super-City' council before the local body elections next year.

Since a Royal Commission has been working and consulting on the development of such a proposal since October 2007, they probably feel on safe ground. Aucklanders currently like that idea – but, like most kiwis, they also like a bob each way, and the Commission offered them that.

National and Act are rejecting the Commission’s proposal to retain six elected subsidiary local councils to oversee local community engagement and local delivery of Auckland council services.

Instead, they propose having 20 to 30 local community boards carrying out the local engagement and advocacy functions and the finessing of such vital functions as dog control, liquor licensing and graffiti control in their own as-yet-undefined territories. More local, less costly, they claim.

That invites a simple response: prove it. There are no savings estimates and there is no analysis of the representation implications of the Super-City council / community boards model in the Key-Hyde plan.

National and Act have also sidelined the Commission’s proposal for a prescribed level of direct Maori representation on the “Super-City” council – much to the chagrin of their third partner in the governing coalition, the Maori Party.

The Key-Hyde plan points out that there is a polling provision in the Local Government Act for the introduction of Maori representation.

As the authors will shortly learn, where Maori representation has already been instituted in the local authorities it is dissolving, there will be Treaty rights issues to be determined, and, if they are not managed correctly, they have the potential to fracture the National-Act-Maori Party coalition as well as delay the reform process.

Special legislation will be needed to implement the Hyde-Key plan, the Royal Commission plan, or whatever permutation might emerge during select committee consideration of the Super-City reform.

The Royal Commission took more than 70 weeks to develop its plan. It took John Key and Rodney Hyde just one week to change it. They haven’t had the last word – yet.