Saturday, March 7, 2015

A hard choice on amalgamation

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 6.)

Me and my big mouth.
In my last column I wrote about two local government politicians from urban Auckland who came to Masterton to tell us what a wonderful thing council amalgamation was.

I pointed out that it would have been more relevant, from a Wairarapa perspective, to hear the opinion of someone from Rodney or Franklin, the two semi-rural districts that had been either wholly or partly sucked in (some might say suckered in) by Auckland.
A few days later I got an email advising of another public meeting at which the speaker would be the chairman of the Pukekohe-based Franklin local board, Andrew Baker.

Having painted myself into a corner, I had no option but to hear what he had to say.
Baker, a farmer and former policeman, turned out to be an enthusiastic and articulate advocate of amalgamation. He admitted having serious misgivings when Franklin was “pulled asunder” in 2010 (part went to Auckland, part to Hauraki and part to Waikato) and said he could empathise with people in the Wairarapa who feared losing control over their own affairs if the region was absorbed by Wellington, as proposed by the Local Government Commission.

He then proceeded to list the ways in which Franklin had benefited.
Within a year of amalgamation, council-owned Watercare Services had committed $130 million to the upgrading of Pukekohe’s “terrible” water supply. The old Franklin council could never have afforded that, Baker said.

Local roading had been greatly improved and the rural fire service, which had made do with 30-year-old trucks and second-hand hoses, had acquired a fleet of modern 4WD vehicles and shiny new gear. The bigger rating base made all the difference.
Baker said the board had control over its own $20 million budget and was well connected with local communities. The chairman was the equivalent of the former mayor and focused entirely on local issues.  

He had no opinion on what should happen in Wellington but noted that under the Local Government Commission’s plan, local decision-making powers would be greater than in Auckland.  
Perhaps his most potent argument, at least for a Masterton audience, was that Franklin rates were going down this year, the result of a rating system that puts most of the rates burden on high-value city properties.

A cynic might say that it’s in Baker’s interests to put the best possible spin on the system that employs him (the chairmanship is a full-time job), and he made no mention of the widespread and deeply  felt aversion to the new governance model in Auckland. But it was a good sales pitch nonetheless.
We are left with a hard choice. Do we place our faith in the Big Government model, or do we insist on the right of a socially and geographically distinct region like the Wairarapa to run its own affairs?

There are powerful arguments both ways, but they are more sharply defined in the Wairarapa than elsewhere because it stands apart from Wellington in a way that the Hutt Valley, Porirua and Kapiti don’t.
I can’t help wondering why the issue is presented as an either/or choice. Why not take a middle course? The three Wairarapa councils could merge, along with the two Hutt cities. Wellington and Porirua could join together, perhaps absorbing Kapiti too, and the regional council could be retained to do what it does now, though perhaps with slightly enhanced powers.

That might overcome some of the objections to the commission’s Big Bang proposal. It would deliver potential efficiency gains without re-inventing the wheel and there would be a more compelling logic to the new boundaries.
One important question that doesn’t seem to have been asked yet, at least publically, is this: assuming the commission’s plan goes ahead, who would be the super-mayor?

It’s important because whoever gets the job will not only be a powerful figure politically, but could largely determine how well the model works.
There’s little doubt that some of the negativity surrounding Auckland is due to people’s dislike of Len Brown. It follows that the public has an interest in knowing who might be the supremo of a Greater Wellington.

Most informed observers seem to assume that regional council chair Fran Wilde has her eye on the job. Certainly, she has pushed aggressively for amalgamation. But when I asked her about it this week, she kicked for touch. Whether she stood for the mayoralty, she replied, would depend on the shape of the final governance arrangements and her personal circumstances at the time.
It was a politician’s answer, as you’d expect.  But Wilde didn’t rule out standing, and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t part of her grand plan.

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