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Time to move with a collective purpose Northland

Time to move with a collective purpose Northland

The Local Government Commission recommendation that all Northland be united under a single Unitary Authority has provided Te Tai Tokerau – Northland with an opportunity; an opportunity to build consensus on the top development priorities for Northland and to partner with Wellington to deliver on them.

The Local Government Commission no doubt wondered why Northland still needs its four current local bodies to cover a region with only 150,000 people, and whether efficiency in planning and implementation could be improved if they were replaced by a single Unitary Authority. It also considered the imperative to improve the economy and how local democracy could be improved.

Northland is not flourishing as it should. Infometrics quarterly results for Northland show unemployment at 9.1% (down from a peak of 9.8% in March) compared to 6.2% for NZ while internal migration and house prices continue to be stubbornly below national averages. Regional GDP at 2.2% is just below NZ at 2.6%. Recent highlights are that commercial building consents are up, 16.1% compared to 10% for NZ, and Northland is third in NZ in the six months to December for domestic visitor nights at 2.2million, 60 per cent of which were from Auckland. However average household incomes in Northland remain the lowest in the country.

The structure of the Northland economy needs to change for incomes to rise and for Northland to become one of the top performing regions. A reliance on commodities and tourism is not enough. This will require focus, investment and determination. In order to do this Northland needs stronger more determined regional governance. The best option for achieving this is one Council, one Mayor, one plan, one set of rules and an empowered regional development agency. This can be achieved, Auckland has proven it. And if it is achieved in Northland, Central Government will take notice.

Stronger more unified regional governance underpins better regional development; likewise stronger local governance can deliver better community outcomes. Getting both will be the trick.

The Local Government Commission has asked Northland to fill in the detail; community boards or local boards; how Maori can contribute in a more meaningful way to local government; how key operational, regulatory and service delivery functions can best be delivered; how assets are managed. But the headline is one unitary authority with a nod towards statutorily established Local Boards (meaning they have their own legal standing).

Local Boards with clear roles and functions, including strengthening local democracy, are the clearly favoured option. However there are a couple of hurdles to get over there; one of which is Central Government passing legislation to allow Local Boards in regions outside of Auckland. I believe this will happen, and then it will be important to ensure that Local Boards are the face of the new Northland Council at the local level. Likewise it will be important to ensure that Local Boards can represent their communities on matters of regional significance.

A statutorily established Maori Advisory Board, with representation on key Northland Council committees could provide stronger partnership between Council and Maori. The nature of representation on this board should be up to Maori to decide, but it needs to be high level. The potential of the Maori economy needs to be unlocked for the benefit of all in Northland and an integrated approach needs to be developed.

Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs) provide the opportunity to gain economies of scale, efficiencies and effectiveness in Council operations. They also provide the opportunity to gain better governance through ‘fit for purpose’ boards being selected on skill and merit and better use of skills not normally found in Councils. Examples could be water and waste-water, transport, council owned investments and property, and economic development – predominantly those functions with a strongly commercial aspect. Longer horizons in planning and investment are a feature of CCOs and investment in regional infrastructure can become more aligned with region-wide and business needs. The regional economy is no respecter of local government boundaries; in fact it is often hindered by them.

A new Northland Council will have to ensure that there is an integrated and coordinated approach to development in Northland. This can be achieved by having one overarching plan for Northland - a spatial plan that all other plans drop out of and talk to. A plan that is driven by Northlanders, negotiated with Central Government and delivered in partnership. ‘The Northland Plan’ has a certain ring to it. I cannot see that being achieved in the current structure.

Northland Inc supports the local government commission’s recommendation for a single unitary authority in Northland. It is the best way to strengthen and diversify the economy, get better infrastructure, provide more and better jobs, higher incomes and to reduce inequality. It’s time to move with a collective purpose Northland.

Northland Inc is Northland’s regional economic development agency, a CCO of the Northland Regional Council.


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