Super-City – the shape of things to come

Official papers released by Local Government Minister Rodney Hyde show his blitzkrieg plan for Auckland’s super city council is framing the shape of things to come for local government throughout New Zealand. Brace yourself

The local government role in delivering economic development and social services is being redefined. Commander Hide has his sights set on shrinking your council’s role back to basics.

This week, the Cabinet is due to get papers from the Minister of Economic Development and the Minister for Social Development and Employment that will start spelling out how the super city plan will trigger a wider tsunami of local government reform across the country.

Minister Hide revealed his broader ambitions in his super city Cabinet papers on 6 April.

“The need to improve Auckland’s economic performance was a key driver of the review of its governance. While it is crucial that local government takes economic development impacts into account in its decision-making, I do not, however, see direct economic development activity as a core function of local government.

“Further work is required to clarify how best local and central government can work together on economic development issues, including regional tourism promotion and major events.”

Looking at the recent pitiful performance of the Auckland Regional Council with its $1.8 million loss on David Beckham’s lacklustre soccer show, the Auckland City Council’s $2.5 million bath in staging overseas productions of My Fair Lady, The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale, many would say good job.

However, these expensive failures do not constitute a case for knocking local councils out of local economic development initiative and tourism promotion – regardless of whether they produce positive results.

After all, Auckland and central government did manage to get their act together to turn the America’s Cup event into a significant $473 million economy-booster for the Auckland region, and, no doubt, other councils around the country have their own success stories to offer.

From my own experience, I know that New Zealand tourism will flounder without positive local community engagement – and that the financial commitment from local authorities in key tourism centres has been a significant contributor to the industry’s growth as a foreign exchange earner.

Hide now has the Department of Internal Affairs working on a project to define the core functions of local government – but it would be surprising if his officials produce anything significantly different to the tight focus he has already suggested: roads, water supply, drains and sewers, waste and transport management, less red-tape planning, and rate increases that are kept to no more than the rate of inflation.

At the same time, Minister of Economic Development Gerry Brownlee has been charged with producing a Cabinet paper this week on the “exact roles and functions of a regional versus local economic development agency and arrangements for regional tourism promotion and major events."

On current council involvement in activities to promote social wellbeing, Hide’s Cabinet paper canned the Royal Commission’s suggestion that a Social Issues Board should be established in Auckland to address social well-being issues in the region.

“This Board would be problematic and structurally complicated, and would expose ministers and central government officials to conflicting accountabilities,” he grumps.

However, Hide identifies a problem in social issues management that stretches well beyond Auckland.

“Current legislation does not constrain [and arguably requires] local government taking an active role in promoting social well-being or developing active social policies but many councils have not sought to do so, seeing this as a core function of central government.”

He goes on to say “there is a need for greater alignment of direction setting, planning, strategies and action so that both central and local government better complement each other.”

Minister for Social Development and Employment Paula Bennett has been tasked with reporting this week on “mechanisms to ensure alignment by central; and local government to improve social well-being." This is a report that could well have implications for a street corner near you.

Those concerned at the prospect may take some comfort from the fact that the Cabinet papers and official reports – stamped “proactively released by the Minister of Local Government – also show that Commander Hide has not been getting it all his own way on Super-City issues.

The hopes he expressed on March 9 that he could hold the release of the Royal Commission report for simultaneous release with the government’s response were dashed. So too, his desire to see resistance to pressure for further public consultation – except during Select Committee consideration of the plan-enacting legislation.

“Opening up those recommendations for further consultation [beyond the Select Committee process] would negate the value of the Royal Commission process, and the public money that funded it,” he advised his colleagues before he had received the Commission’s report.

Hide shot that strategy out of the sky by producing a super city plan is so significantly different to the Royal Commission recommendations that resisting consultation with the existing major players in Auckland local government is a politically unsustainable position for the government.

He has to respond when all the region’s mayors – except John Banks, who is keeping his view private – have told him they want all the super city councillors elected by voters in the still-to-be defined wards of the region and that they reject the prospect of seeing a rich, famous or political bloc-backed super mayor and eight of the 20 super councillors elected on an all-of-Auckland vote. The early rumblings suggest the government will cave to popular pressure on this one.

The government papers also reveal that Cabinet has a fall-back position, if the whole reform process bogs down and can’t be implemented before the local government elections next year.

“If necessary, legislation could postpone scheduled local authority elections in Auckland, and make appropriate provision for governance over the transition period,” says Hide’s paper of  March 9. The cut-off date for that decision is one year from now.