The prospect of all three Wairarapa district councils merging is moving closer to reality now that a working group is set up to talk about options for more effective cooperation.
Masterton District Council [MDC], Carterton District Council [CDC], and South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] have confirmed in a joint statement that, with the formation of the group, talks about reform are now on the table.
“The purpose of the working group, which includes the Deputy Mayors and a councillor from each council, is to look at the future of district councils post reforms,” the statement issued yesterday said.
“The working group aims to report back to the three Wairarapa councils to get commitment from each full council to progress conversations regarding a merger, with SWDC yet to form a view on this subject.
“The shape and form of any future combined organisation is yet to be determined. The aim is to ensure all three councils play a lead role in what happens to local government in Wairarapa.”
Carterton mayor Ron Mark said he favours the formation of one unitary Wairarapa authority, while Masterton mayor Gary Caffell has described council reorganisation as “inevitable”.
South Wairarapa mayor Martin Connelly, however, said he prefers not to comment while the working group process is underway.
The move comes after the recent report of the independent panel on the Review into the Future for Local Government recommended widespread change.
“The changes recommended in this report are based on the premise that many elements of councils’ current operating models are not fit for the future and will require a deliberate and conscious reset,” the report said.
“In implementing the changes to governance and local democracy and renewing their focus on wellbeing, councils will need to change many significant elements of the way they operate.”
Mark said the question of how councils are structured for the most effective form of governance is an urgent matter facing local government.
He said recent reforms, including water and resource management legislation, can be expected to impact strongly on local autonomy and decision-making.
Mark said although Carterton us well-placed for the future, having made a significant investment in water infrastructure in recent years, reform is inevitable.
“What we have done with water means we are futureproofed to 2043, perhaps even to 2050,” he said.
“How many councils can say that? Very few.”
“We are being forced to reform, so we have to review the [council] forms to consider whether the form suits the function,” Mark said.
“Could we do things more efficiently, with higher uniformity and consistency across Wairarapa? Could costs be streamlined if we had one council instead of three?”
Mark said he favours combining all three Wairarapa councils with the part of the Greater Wellington Regional Council that operates on the Wairarapa side of Rimutaka Hill, which would have the effect of forming one Wairarapa-wide unitary authority.
“I’m on the record as saying I would like a unitary authority across the region. It’s needed now more than ever,” he said.
“The current challenges affecting the region require us to re-examine the governance model. We are one Wairarapa.
“There are also a lot of plusses. Wairarapa is booming. We are a strong and resilient community of people. We are pretty darn tough, and we work really well together.”
Mark said it is important for the region to define its own identity – otherwise, Wairarapa risks having changes imposed on it.
“If change is forced from above, we will be part of a Wellington structural entity,” he said.
“I’d like to see the changes in place in time for the next local government elections in 2025.”
Masterton mayor Gary Caffell said council reorganisation is “inevitable – it just depends on when that inevitability happens”.
Caffell is supportive of the joint working group, and noted they are expected to explore and report on the pros and cons of all three councils working together more closely.
“We need to know all that before we take a final decision,” he said.
Caffell said it is important Wairarapa works together as a region.
“It’s much better if all three councils speak with one voice for the region. There are interesting practical and logistical issues to work through. I am hopeful we can get past parochialism and get something that works for Wairarapa,” he said.
“I am optimistic the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages if there is a will from all three councils to make this happen. We need to look to the future rather than looking to the past. If we don’t move this along ourselves, central government will make it happen to us,” he said.
Caffell agreed with Mark that a timeframe of 2025 is a goal worth aiming for.
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