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The One Waikato Supercity Agenda

The One Waikato Supercity Agenda

by Geoffrey And Reihana Robinson
September 1, 2013

Waikato local government is on the verge of major change, with Hamilton fast approaching the front of the queue on inevitable council amalgamations.

Earlier this week, at a closed-door “leadership” event, representatives of Government, the Property Council of NZ, University of Waikato, Waikato Mayoral Forum and invited guests met to discuss reorganisation options. The wheels are turning.

Waikato Regional Council leaders have avoided openly discussing potential reform outcomes, preferring instead to publicly dodge the subject. But their basic position and political strategy couldn’t be more transparent.

Over at WRC headquarters, support for Chairman Peter Buckley and Deputy Chair Simon Friar has been eroding. The pair, who struck a mutually beneficial deal that saved Buckley’s job by elevating Friar to number two after the 2010 election, face potential ousting or demotion under a list of possible election scenarios.

Rates Control Team councillors, who have battled for six years against escalating budgets and velodrome millions, are contesting almost every WRC seat and could make significant election gains. Meanwhile, a few independents could switch allegiances and tip the balance.

In response, Buckley and Friar have drafted six other candidates to bolster their sagging chances for a rejigged council majority. Their election-time brand name is “One Waikato”, but it could just as well be “One Waikato Supercity”.

To see how the “One Waikato” and “One Waikato Supercity” plot lines intersect, take a look at Wellington, where local government restructuring is well underway and battle lines are clear.

Government and big business want as few local councils as possible. Fewer councils mean fewer plans and rules, faster permitting and lower costs – in short, less obstacles and greasier wheels. Greater Wellington Regional Council (whose most important stakeholders, like WRC’s, are Government and NZ corporates) is pushing for a single all-Wellington supercity unitary council to suit its patrons.

Ordinary ratepayers want lower costs and less red tape, too. But they know council combinations, if too large, will mean a loss of local control. That’s why Wellington City Council and other districts favour smaller councils with more sensible borders instead.

Following the lead of his regional council colleagues in Wellington, Buckley has already rubbished any attempt to form more than one unitary council in the Waikato -- not now, not ever.

So when push comes to shove and council amalgamations come to centre stage here, the One Waikato group at WRC would be lined up foursquare against Hamilton City Council and those supporting a Greater Hamilton unitary council based on natural geographic, economic and social catchment area boundaries. One Waikato opposes anything less than an all-Waikato solution.

One Waikato in its election hype is promoting the unaccountable and transparency-free Waikato mayoral forum as its preferred cost-reduction vehicle. In reality, the forum is busy advancing an all-Waikato agenda without calling the result by its real name – Supercity. The unelected forum is writing regionwide economic development and spatial plans that would trump any strategies of Hamilton City Council or other districts.

As long as the mayoral forum keeps expanding its work and budget, the Buckley team have a de facto supercity in the making, just like their mates at Wellington Regional. Hamiltonians can be guaranteed the One Waikato group, if re-elected, will fight tooth and nail against any other alternative.

Meanwhile, all Waikato mayors and CEOs are busy exploring savings through shared services. The One Waikato election sales pitch stakes a phony election claim to those savings, when in fact they deserve no more credit than Hardaker, Macpherson or any councillor from Taupo to Thames.

When it comes to scanning their election ballots, alert Hamilton voters will remember that One Waikato has been running the show at WRC for the last six years. The newly minted name is pure spin and public relations. Hamilton candidate Tritt and others standing under the OW banner are there for only three reasons – to maintain status quo spending and rating priorities, keep Buckley and Friar in their jobs, and provide another council vote for an eventual supercity council.

If Hamiltonians want a sprawling all-Waikato Supercity future, the One Waikato slate of candidates is the right choice for regional council.

But if voters prefer strong community self-rule and local democracy, keeping Hamilton at the center of planning, and putting every rates dollar to work for Hamiltonians and their district neighbours, they have better ballot alternatives.

*************

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

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