Last year was a busy time for the Local Government Commission as it worked its way through three major reorganisation applications.
If 2015 was a full year for the Local Government Commission, 2016 promises to be even busier, says Local Government Commission CE Sandra Preston. We are excited at the prospect, and look forward to hearing about the many positive local government initiatives in progress; and to opportunities for collaborating with local government leaders and councils on the many challenges the sector faces.
The past year was eventful in terms of the Commission’s make-up, achievements and direction of travel: we progressed a number of important reorganisation applications, agreed to assess other applications, had a new chair and commissioner appointed in August, refreshed our approach to liaising and working with local government, and prepared for a busy programme of representation reviews.
The year began with ongoing public consultation on three major reorganisation applications: Wellington, Northland and Hawkes Bay.
In Wellington, the Commission received more than 9000 submissions on its draft proposal favouring a single unitary council for the Wellington region. It heard from 450 submitters in person at public hearings held in seven of the affected districts during March and April.
A large majority of the submissions opposed the Commission’s proposal, but about 40 percent sought change to local government services and infrastructure.
Subsequently, in June, the Commission decided not to proceed to a final proposal, instead opting to return to the community to assist in reaching consensus on the most significant challenges facing local government in the region; and to collaborate in identifying the options for addressing these.
The Commission’s proposal for Northland took a similar trajectory, and has resulted in meetings and discussions with local government in the region. The Commission has agreed its work should fit into an existing strategic and shared services project, with the councils remaining sponsors of the work streams and the Commission adding value where it can.
By contrast, in Hawkes Bay, the Commission felt there was sufficient support for its draft proposal in favour of a single unitary authority to issue a Final Proposal. The conclusive outcome of the resulting public poll, rejecting this and maintaining the status quo, was confirmed on September 18.
A number of critical issues were canvassed widely during a robust campaign. Mayors spoke of the need for councils in Hawkes Bay to improve shared working arrangements and, at their invitation, chair Sir Wira Gardiner and Commission staff attended professional and constructive forums in Napier.
A new Commission
In July, the terms of the three local government commissioners, chair Basil Morrison, Anne Carter and Janie Annear were completed. Former Local Government Minister Paula Bennett appointed new chair Sir Wira Gardiner, new commissioner Leigh Auton and reappointed Janie Annear.
Sir Wira brings a depth of high-level public and private sector experience to the Commission, and Leigh Auton extensive local government experience. Janie Annear, originally appointed to the Commission in 2014, having served three terms as mayor of Timaru, ensures continuity with the energetic work of the previous Commission.
She is also chairing the Representation Reviews Committee to which Leith Comer and Pauline Kingi have been appointed as temporary commissioners.
Refreshing our approach
The appointment of the new Commission coincided with the development of a refreshed approach to its work. Our experience of reorganisation through large-scale amalgamations showed these were divisive, slow to progress and perceived by the general public as diminishing local identity and decision-making.
At the same time, many local government leaders and the people they represent have recognised that not only does the sector face significant challenges in delivering efficient services and providing cost-effective infrastructure into the future, but that working together across regions, sharing services and integrating functions, is necessary to address these issues.
In her July speech to the LGNZ conference in Rotorua, then Local Government Minister Paula Bennett confirmed that she would not legislate for large-scale amalgamations, rather she was charging the Commission with working up various options that could fit with different regions’ needs.
These could include council controlled organisations, shared service arrangements and the transfer of core functions between regional and territorial authorities. In November the Minister announced she would be introducing legislation early in 2016 to make this easier for councils to achieve.
The role of the Commission has thus been evolving to include that of broker and enabler alongside that of managing the more prescribed processes for local government reorganisation set down in the Local Government Act 2002.
A good example of this is its work in the Wellington region. Under the leadership of Sir Wira, there has been a reset in the relationship between the Commission, and mayors and regional council chair, and chief executives, including regular meetings leading to a shared work programme. The Commission has also met with each full council in the region.
Transport and spatial planning have been identified by the Wellington Region Mayoral Forum and the Commission as challenges that would benefit from this joint approach. Work is underway in these areas and we aim to begin consulting the public on a package of options in the next months with a view to arriving at a definitive decision mid-year.
The Commission has also adopted this approach alongside the more formal reorganisation process in North Rodney and the West Coast.
The Commission has agreed to assess applications from both, but is gathering as much information as it can by talking to applicants, affected parties and local government leaders, and is facilitating discussions about potential solutions to perceived problems.
One of the highlights of 2016 will be the Commission’s “regional conversations’’ programme. We will begin a series of regional visits throughout the country for joint meetings with mayors and chairs in February.
We want to hear from them about the issues they face and how they are addressing them. We also want to share with them the experiences of others, and work with them in exploring opportunities and options for change where this is being discussed.
We know that while many communities and their local government leaders face similar challenges, each region will have its particular needs, context and potential solutions.
As part of our role to promote good local government we hope to stimulate and enable conversations towards meeting the aspirations most of us in the sector share: efficient services and cost-effective modern infrastructure allied to good-quality local decision-making.
Contributing towards these goals is a responsibility and privilege.
This article was first published in NZ Local Government Magazine’s Perspectives 2016.