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Robinson Report: Coromandel self rule plan good

Robinson Report: Coromandel self rule plan good

As candidates file nomination papers for local body elections, the stage is being set for the biggest showdown seen in Waikato government.

Before long, Hamilton City will find itself right in the middle of the inevitable battle to define the region's future political landscape.

On the Coromandel Peninsula, residents are hoping October will be their last election as part of the sprawling Waikato region.

Thames-Coromandel District Council, with strong public support, is advancing efforts to establish a unitary local authority. The new council would assume functions of both district and regional councils, charting its own independent course on economic development, policy and planning - and as many believe, improving services and enhancing democracy.

But Waikato Regional Council, and its big-business sponsors, don't intend to let the Coromandel (and its rates dollars) slip away without a fight.

WRC is prepared to propose an all-Waikato supercity plan for council amalgamation, or to support such a plan if tabled by industry or a "leadership" front group.

One way or another, WRC is certain to lead or join opposition to Coromandel's plan for increased local control.

The looming battle between the Coromandel and Waikato region supercity backers has been foreshadowed in Wellington and Northland, where the Wairarapa and Far North District seek to form standalone unitary councils - for the same reasons as Coromandel.

All three areas (Wairarapa, Far North, and Coromandel) are provincial-rural in character and are geographically, economically and culturally distinct from the Wellington, Whangarei and Hamilton metro catchments they are yoked to.

Wairarapa has been vigorously opposed at every turn by Greater Wellington Regional Council and Fran Wilde, its supercity promoting chair. Wilde recently advised WRC at a closed-door council workshop on local government reform.

Also opposing the Wairarapa is the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development, a powerful, top-100 corporate lobby group. NZCID has floated its own blueprint for an all-Waikato supercity amalgamation.

Sometime after the October elections, the Waikato can expect the same struggle. The Coromandel will be opposed hammer and tong by Waikato Regional Council and NZCID, with likely backing from the Property Council of NZ.

Responding to TCDC's recent decision to engage consultants Morrison Low for a next-stage feasibility study, WRC chairman Peter Buckley reportedly remarked he is "waiting with bated breath" - presumably to start railing against the report's conclusions.

Buckley is on record opposing establishment of more than one unitary council within current Waikato region boundaries.

Buckley, and his supporters in government and industry, insist bigger councils are better. He and his WRC teammates don't mention their own salaries would be reduced, under Remuneration Authority guidelines, if the Coromandel plan succeeds.

Nor do they mention the virtual explosion of discretionary regional council projects and rates over the last decade - or unpopular details like $11 million in velodrome spending or $34m council headquarters plans.

As for corporates like NZCID and the property council, the fewer local councils and plans they must deal with the better. A future where regional government is reduced to a few sprawling supercity councils with toothless local community boards is their Xanadu.

Although amalgamation is still a hush-hush topic, Hamilton residents should know it's just over the horizon. And if regional supercity promoters at WRC and NZCID ultimately prevail over the Coromandel, the outcome would also mean reduced local control for Hamiltonians over their own council rates and a wide range of policies shaping the city's future.

Hamilton, along with the Coromandel, would be big-time losers. (WRC and its NZCID allies realise "supercity" is a bad word and now use the term "two-tier model" for their preferred outcome).

Some form of amalgamation reflecting the Hamilton's natural role as economic, geographic, and cultural hub is inevitable and desirable. A grouping of Hamilton, Waipa, Waikato and possibly several other districts in the SH1-Waikato River corridor would make sense. That was the original reform idea that had good support back in 2009-10 before big business and WRC latched on to their larger, all-region supercity council idea.

An all-Waikato supercity council, in contrast, would dilute the power of Hamilton.

Wellington City Council has formally endorsed the Wairarapa unitary council proposal and supports splitting the existing Wellington region into two logically defined unitary councils - one "metro" and one "provincial rural". HCC should prepare to take the same stance in favour of two councils as the Coromandel plan progresses.

Geoffrey Robinson and Reihana Robinson comment regularly on local government, public policy, and environmental issues.


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