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Plan for Combined Council Advances

Plan for Combined Council Advances

by Geoffrey Robinson
April 26, 2014

Big change appears to be underway for Waikato local government, with a formal proposal to establish a single council representing the combined interests of greater Hamilton and neighbouring districts in final preparation.

The proposal, the result of three years of work by the Waikato branch of Property Council New Zealand in consultation with a range of community and business leaders, will be unveiled to the group’s membership April 30 prior to official presentation to the Local Government Commission in Wellington.

The proposed new council, with one mayor, 16 councillors, and 11 local community boards, would combine all functions of both district and regional councils. Its boundaries would encompass what is generally considered the natural economic and social catchment of the western Waikato, including Hamilton City, Waikato, Waipa, and Matamata-Piako districts, as well as portions of Otorohanga, South Waikato and Waitomo districts. The plan seeks to empower local boards and retain considerable local governance, with specific provision for Maori and rural representation.

Representing approximately 550 member firms with business interests in a spectrum of commercial, industrial, and residential property development, management and investment, the Property Council cites the potential for large efficiency gains and reduction in council staffs and overhead costs far exceeding current cooperative efforts by Waikato mayors. The group has identified additional potential benefits from integrated planning in areas like transportation, economic development, and land use.

For Hamilton residents and ratepayers, the proposed new council structure would mean easing the ongoing financial burden of building and maintaining expensive facilities and infrastructure -- from roading and CBD amenities to sports, cultural and events centres -- that benefit neighbouring districts and the wider Waikato. For outlying districts, the plan would provide expanded influence over how the Hamilton urban environment is developed and managed. It would also alleviate looming budget squeezes at those councils caused by shifting demographics.

The proposed council boundaries would exclude Thames-Coromandel and Hauraki districts, in line with recommendations of local government reform advocates dating back to 2009. The Coromandel Peninsula and greater Thames Valley in the eastern Waikato are generally considered a distinct geographic unit and community of interests with well defined economic, environmental, social, and cultural priorities and concerns different to those of Hamilton and the SH1/Waikato River western Waikato corridor.

The Property Council plan explicitly rejects any “all-Waikato” reorganisation option based on existing regional boundaries, which were created in the 1980s to address different administrative goals. The Property Council says its proposal seeks to reflect natural “communities of interest” and interconnected economies. The 2013 local body elections have been seen as a gauge of public opinion on “all-Waikato” government, when six out of eight “OneWaikato” regional council candidates were rejected.

Support for the Property Council plan is expected from Thames-Coromandel District Council (TCDC), which has been simultaneously exploring the potential costs and benefits of a standalone unitary council to govern eastern Waikato districts. After receiving a 1,500-signature citizens petition in 2012 seeking local government separation from Hamilton, TCDC last year engaged independent consultants to explore several reform options. Preliminary analysis provided to TCDC has affirmed the overall financial viability of an eastern Waikato unitary council and has identified a potential for increased efficiencies, enhanced local democracy, and more appropriate service levels.

The Property Council plan has already drawn positive response in advance of its public launch from several prominent figures active in local government reform. Former Mayor Margaret Evans, a campaigner for over five years locally and in Wellington in support of similar two-tier amalgamation, summed up the reasons.

“There has been widespread dissatisfaction with local government for years. There is far too much red tape, and it frustrates people. They feel they are not listened to. It is essential we look at change,” she said last week.

Evans cites a crisis in local democracy, with plummeting voter participation and widespread cynicism at the policy development. She said the Property Council proposal is a positive development.

Economics professor and former University of Waikato Management School Dean Frank Scrimgeour, cited a number of “helpful features” in the plan and called it a step toward addressing “issues of duplication and unnecessary complexity in planning”. Scrimgeour presented a range of unitary council options for Hamilton and the greater Waikato region in 2010 and is influential in the amalgamation debate.

At Hamilton City Council, support for council amalgamations has been expressed under both former Mayor Bob Simcock (now at regional council) and Mayor Julie Hardaker during her first term.

Waikato Regional Council has not yet indicated if it will put forward a competing “all-Waikato” unitary council proposal that would encompass the entire geographic area it currently rates. WRC councillors have been divided on the issue.

ENDS

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