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Improving local body governance

The Wairarapa is governed by four councils. There is one Regional Council that covers the Greater Wellington Region, and we have three District Councils, one each for Masterton, Carterton and the South Wairarapa.

To some people, that sounds like a lot of councils. The Wairarapa has 3 mayors and 25 district councillors, not to mention three chief executive officers and three dog pounds. That sounds like a lot of people being paid, and a lot of dog pounds.

Businesses, such as hairdressers, need to pay fees to councils to stay in business. For hairdressers, the fee in one district is $175, in the neighbouring districts the fees are $190 and $260. Rubbish bags cost $4 in Masterton, $2.80 in Carterton and $3 in South Wairarapa.

Local body governance is changing. The first cab off the rank is “Three Waters.” Under current government plans, local councils will soon cease making decisions about their water and waste-water services. Most people know about this change, and many have opinions.

However, an even more momentous change is about to happen, the reform of the Resource Management Act. This will create “Regional Spatial Strategies” that will drive planning decisions at the local level. The implications are unclear, but many informed commentators foresee local councils losing a lot of their local planning decisions. The Kapiti District Council is concerned about “the lack of democratic accountability for planning decisions under the new system”. We should all be concerned.

For most New Zealand councils, providing water services is the largest part of their budget, while looking after district plans is the most significant way councils and residents can shape the future look and feel of the places they live. If councils lose those two functions, what is left for councils to do? And this is a serious question that your three mayors are asking themselves.

I hear people say, “Let’s amalgamate”, but those people often ignore the evidence about council mergers. Political Scientist Dr Jean Drage, recently wrote that since 1989, when New Zealand wiped two-thirds of its councils from the electoral map, voter turnout has fallen, election after election. In the last council elections, New Zealand had its lowest turnout ever, at around 40 per cent. Currently, our large cities have one councillor for around 10,000 residents. In 2022, 35 per cent of Auckland voters cast a vote. When people think their votes do not count, they do not vote.

Compare that to what happens in rural areas where, on average, there is one councillor for about 1500 residents. Here the voting turnout is well above 50 per cent. Particularly notable was Carterton, where, in 2002, 60 per cent of potential voters cast a ballot.

At this point, the keen ‘amalgamators’ say, “Yes, but consider the savings, efficiencies, and improved co-ordination that we get from larger councils.” Sadly, for them, the evidence does not agree. The most significant amalgamation in New Zealand was the Auckland supercity. Auckland now has the highest rates in the country. And we recently saw that Auckland’s civil defence systems were tragically deficient, nowhere near as effective as the emergency responses happening in smaller districts such as Masterton and Tararua. In the EU there is, on average, one local body for every 6000 people.

A final word on amalgamation. The World Bank and the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission conclude that there is no significant difference in cost between smaller and larger councils.

What we need to do is to look for more flexible and problem-oriented governance arrangements and more innovation to provide meaningful alternatives to amalgamation. We could start with a Wairarapa-wide approach to simplifying council rules and the costs imposed on businesses and residents.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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