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Local govt is on the move

Under the current Government, local government is increasing in size from smaller units to bigger. Does this matter ?

On a personal level, I think it does – it has the effect of removing the “local” from our democratic processes, and makes it difficult for people other than the wealthy to become local councillors.

From my observation over forty years living in Northcote and Birkenhead (Auckland), the effects of amalgamation from borough councils to a merged North Shore City and now as a part of the wider Auckland Council reduces both the relevance and importance to local people and leads to a lesser turnout of voters over time.

As an example, before amalgamation the Northcote Borough Council had a voter turnout of almost 70%. This turnout gradually reduced when the combined North Shore City was established, and with the formation of the new Auckland Council has dropped to just over 40% of registered voters in the 2013 local government elections.

To quote from the Local Government NZ website Voter turnout – what’s the story?

The historic trend in New Zealand is for voters in councils with small populations to turnout in much higher proportions to voters in centres with large populations. This may be because people have more information about the candidates or it may be because they feel more engaged with their councils than do citizens in large centres.

On a more practical level, it definitely matters.
People are sold the story that amalgamating several smaller councils into one will lead to increased efficiencies, less cost, and presumably lower rates.
In 2012, the NAct Government changed the broad purpose of the Local Government Act 2002 covering social, economic, cultural, environment well-being instead “to meet the current and future needs of communities for good-quality local infrastructure, local public services, and performance of regulatory functions in a way that is most cost-effective for households and businesses.”

But overseas research where similar amalgamations have taken place (there is little research in NZ on this matter) shows “It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that no definitive answers concerning the economic outcomes of amalgamation exist and these arguments do not have a strong evidential base, despite their frequent usage.

A more recent example is Auckland City’s increase in staff (and related costs) in the year to 30 June 2012 to 8040 FTEs, up from 7200 in the previous year.
And there is more.

The removal of funding and local input into decision-making which affects that local area.

Reading the new unitary local government proposal for Northland – four councils into one, with a base in Whangarei, the language used is disturbing.

It appears the actual Council (10 people) will have the power to make all decisions, but the community boards and the Maori boards may only recommend, report, provide information, advise, be a governance body for parks, libraries, etc, etc but not make any actual decisions which affect their local people.
The Northland Council's obligations to the various community boards will be to provide them with information (and some funding), consult them on issues relating to that area, and seek their advice on council-wide plans and other strategies. There will be no obligation - as far as I can make out from the draft proposal - for the Northland Council to actually take into account that advice.

Effectively - the new Northland Council will become so remote from its people and the communities it is meant to serve, that it will be able to do anything it likes. It will "consult" and it is obliged to provide the Boards with "information" and "assistance" so the Boards will think they're doing a good job : but nothing in the draft proposal indicates that the Council will HAVE to take any notice whatsoever of anything iwi or the Boards say.

As Waitakare Board member Greg Presland has found out - there is not much “power” in the local boards set up under the Auckland super city model. When commenting on the Government’s block offer release for oil exploration offshore from Auckland’s West Coast, Greg Presland says “ the Auckland Council did not tell the Waitakere Ranges Local Board about the proposal despite … the Board’s area includes most of Auckland’s west coast…… even though the draft submission was discussed with Iwi. Its submission said there was insufficient time for consultation with local boards to happen but I do not know why we could not at least have been told about the consultation”

A similar proposal for amalgamation is happening right now in the Hawkes Bay, Napier region, and Wellington/Waiarapa and Whanganui will have proposals put to them by the Local Government Commission some time later this year.

So – if people are worried about the demise of their local councils, what can they do about it ?

If the Local Government Commission decides to issue a final proposal abolishing and merging existing councils, then there is a 60 day window in which electors in one or more of the affected districts can call for a binding poll on the Commission's final proposal. The binding poll must be held across the entire area affected by the Commission's proposal. For example, if 10% of the voters in the Kaipara District (that is 1,290 people) were to sign a petition for a poll then a binding poll across the entire Northland region of 152,000 people would need to be held. The poll would determine whether the final proposal will proceed or not.

For Northland people, this “window” expires on 21 February 2014. For Hastings and Napier people, their deadline is 7 March 2014.

For further information, visit the Local Government Commission website. Or just email your submission (with name, address, and your local council details) to info@lgc.govt.nz or post it to: Local Government Commission PO Box 5362 Wellington 6145


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