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What’s wrong with Auckland?

What’s wrong with Auckland?

Janet Clews
Waitakere City Councillor
Former Mayor of Glen Eden
Deputy Chairman of the Watercare Shareholders’ Representative Group
(45 years in public office)


What’s wrong with Auckland? It has two major problems on which everyone seems to agree: firstly the need to clear up confusion on regional issues and, secondly, the need for additional money to make up for years of underfunding the region’s infrastructure.

A unitary authority as proposed by the Royal Commission on Governance with the special purpose bodies suggested might solve the first problem if it were elected democratically, but not “at large.” It must also have mandated linkages to the boards which are its subsidiaries. Funding to support ratepayer investment can only come from, or by the grace of, Central Government, so that is a matter for continuing dialogue.

When he says that Auckland is dysfunctional, the Minister of Local Government has been fed only one side of the story. There are many proven examples of huge cooperative initiatives which committed council representatives have worked hard to complete only to have them torpedoed by others who arrive or return to the scene and refuse to accept the agreed position. It is patently obvious that it is the behaviour and opinion of a very few who have misled him. These are the ones who refuse to work in a cooperative way, who set up separate offices away from their colleagues and senior staff, and who profess to be accessible to the public yet prevent anyone from even climbing the stairs without an appointment.

The Royal Commission spent $3.5m, 18 months of work and dealt with 3500 submissions to come up with a plan which delivered a solution for the wider regional matters, yet recognised the need for a subsidiary group of six reasonably sized councils. The number of submissions received represents less than 0.3% of the population of the region. Even Waitakere’s last long term plan drew five times that interest from its community.

The Commission rejected the suggestion of 20-30 community boards with good reason. It said it would be harder to implement. It chose the 6 council model because: “the departure from existing boundaries was not so marked, and natural features such as the coastline and Waitakere Ranges would potentially have been better managed within fewer entities. There would also have been fewer new offices and service centers required and less disruption to existing communities.”

That last point is a telling one. Local government should be about serving people not alienating them.

It is critical that the second tier councils have sufficient scale to actually be able to achieve things for their communities with the help of the unitary authority. They should continue to have a role in place-shaping through working with those communities.
The Ministers’ decision to have 20-30 community boards flies in the face of the Royal Commission report, and is a case of back to the future, [providing the worst of all worlds. It is a perfect demonstration of divide and rule. At least the 27 cities and boroughs which existed at the time of the 1989 amalgamation had real autonomy. What is proposed now is nothing but a sop to Cerberus. It also confuses representation with empowerment.

Those who worked through the 1989 re-organisation know that it took years to recover from those changes. Many of us have spent 20 years or more serving our communities and building cities as prescribed by a previous government. Now, we ask for what reason and at what cost? Yes there were efficiencies, better qualified staff and greater substance but no savings to the ratepayer because the region is growing and the work prescribed in legislation has grown. There will be no substantial savings this time round either - only an unhealthy concentration of power which is remote from the people. It may be good for the bureaucracy but it is not good for the man in the street.

While efficiencies, excellence and service must always be striven for at all levels in a business- like way, we must also work cooperatively with integrity and honesty. So I plead with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Local Government to think again before destroying the benefits of the past 20 years. Here is an opportunity to do better and we must do it together.

Twenty to thirty community boards across the region will not provide any more effective community engagement than the six local council model proposed by the Royal Commission. To be effective there has to be funding, delegation and a real willingness to listen. Community engagement does not just happen. It must be encouraged, worked at and respected. This applies to all levels of government. It must be said that there has actually been no real community engagement by the Government on this suggested return to the past.

These comments have nothing to do with patch protection or safeguarding my job, because my days are nearly over. They are all about my despair at yet another attempt to rip the heart out of communities at great cost but for little purpose. This time, the hearts are bigger but just as vulnerable. They have been built up through community organisations coming together with the support of the existing larger authorities to serve their distinct areas better. It would be a tragedy if all that cooperation were now lost. And to rub salt into the wound, the ratepayers of these communities must pay for their own execution!

Meantime, it must be business as usual; yet elected members and senior staff will be diverted to assist the formation of the new entities. I remember the feeling from 1989 of treading water in that period of change while trying to keep services running, being honest in not spending excessively in the dying days and trying to obtain the best deal for our ratepayers. They will expect nothing less this time round.

The timing of all this could hardly be worse. We are in a period of recession yet are intent upon causing huge uncertainty to a large professional work force. They are expected to deliver to the community at a high level while they are fearful of the future. Even the most loyal workers, the keepers of vast institutional knowledge, cannot help but question why they find themselves in this position.
We should question it too.


Janet Clews
Waitakere City Councillor
Former Mayor of Glen Eden
Deputy Chairman of the Watercare Shareholders’ Representative Group
(45 years in public office)


ENDS

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