Last year, the Local Government Commission focused on North Rodney, Waiheke, the West Coast, Wairarapa and Wellington. Northland and Auckland will be in the spotlight in 2018. Dr Suzanne Doig, chief executive, Local Government Commission.
Statutory criteria in the Local Government Act govern much of the Local Government Commission’s work programme, and its rate of progress. Coincidentally, a number of applications before us reached significant decision points towards the end of 2017.
Hopefully this will have brought welcome resolution, or at least greater clarity, for the communities concerned. It also allows us to draw breath before moving on to the challenges 2018 will inevitably bring as we work with communities across the country to assist them in achieving efficient, cost-effective and democratic local government arrangements.
Status quo for North Rodney and Waiheke
At the end of November, the commission visited Warkworth and Waiheke to announce our preferred option decision for Auckland local government reorganisation. This arose out of an application by the Northern Action Group for a North Rodney Unitary Council separate from Auckland Council, and an alternative application from Our Waiheke for a Waiheke Unitary Council.
The commission determined that the status quo was the preferred option with the result that the applications for North Rodney and Waiheke unitary councils will not proceed.
This decision was taken after careful consideration of the applications before it, and examination and analysis of the evidence tested against the criteria set out in the Local Government Act.
The commissioners found that neither a North Rodney Unitary Authority, nor a Waiheke Unitary Authority – combining the responsibilities of district and regional councils for their respective proposed areas – would meet the statutory legislative tests.
In particular, neither would have the resources necessary to carry out those responsibilities, including a number relating to large sensitive marine environments. There were no other alternatives put forward that met the tests for a change to the current local government arrangements.
Preferred option for West Coast
The commission will continue to be involved on the West Coast in 2018 after announcing a preferred option decision for local government arrangements in the region.
In early December we announced that option to be a transfer of responsibility for district plan preparation from the Buller, Grey and Westland district councils to the West Coast Regional Council – with the establishment of a joint committee of the four councils to develop and approve the new combined district plan.
The commissioners also considered two other options: a unitary authority for the region combining all four councils into a single West Coast council; and the status quo. A unitary authority would have significant potential gains for the coast.
But the commission was not convinced, given the special nature of the region, that one council with an unfamiliar local board structure would be the best option at this time to enable democratic decision-making.
Equally, given the acknowledged challenges facing the West Coast councils, neither was “no change’’ considered tenable as the option to best promote the purpose of local government into the future, and achieve improved economic performance.
The commission will now begin work on preparing a draft proposal with input from West Coast councils, seek submissions on it and hold hearings. After considering submissions and feedback, it may then issue a final proposal for a combined West Coast District plan, identify another option, or decide not to proceed with any reorganisation option.
By now the outcome of the commission’s most recent final proposal, in the Wairarapa, will be public. Wairarapa electors voted on whether or not they supported or opposed a combined Wairarapa District Council in place of the South Wairarapa, Carterton, and Masterton district councils. This poll was due to close just after this edition went to press.
If the Wairarapa public have voted for the proposal, the commission will be busy establishing a transition body early in 2018, and will work with it and the councils to assist a seamless move to a new council, with elections most likely to be held late this year. If the public has opposed the proposal, the reorganisation process comes to an end and the status quo prevails.
Either way, having conducted a robust debate, it is the community that will have made the decision on its preferred arrangements – with the bonus of a heightened awareness and interest in its own local government.
Throughout a long-running process in which the commission has enjoyed constructive relationships with the councils, community and local government leadership, the advantage of closer collaboration and shared services has been a consistent theme.
While the Wairarapa community was having its final say, the commission completed its work on the rest of the Wellington region. We have recommended Wellington’s five urban councils take a fresh approach to dealing with cross-boundary transport and planning issues.
The area would benefit from these councils adopting the productive joint governance arrangements used in other parts of New Zealand.
The commission’s recommendations are non-binding but require a formal response from councils in the first half of this year.
Northland and Auckland
The commission also intends to use the same powers to make recommendations to councils in Northland and Auckland in 2018 following decisions to stick with the status quo in these areas. These recommendations would follow up on opportunities for improved efficiencies, performance and service delivery.
Busy time ahead
The commission expects to be busy throughout this year assisting councils with their statutory representation reviews and in resolving appeals to that process. Fifty-eight councils are scheduled to complete reviews and of those we expect a good number will come to us for adjudication, to be completed by April 2019.
The commission’s experience over the past two or three years and our anticipated programme in 2018 point towards extending the collaborative approach we have adopted in working with communities and councils.
While we are governed by the Local Government Act which stipulates a prescriptive approach to reorganisation applications, we also have a broader role in promoting good local government. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with colleagues in the sector to this end.
This article was first published in the Perspectives 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.