The size of local government units has been a major debate in New Zealand for many years. And the process of local government consolidation is often contentious, easily degenerating to the level of bumper sticker simplicities. In local government, “amalgamation” to some people is a dirty word, while “status quo” can be sweet and acceptable.

Generally, there is widespread concern about changes to local government boundaries. Formal Inquiries regularly receive extensive submissions arguing for no change. These proffer varied and often emotional appeals premised on a sense of historical attachment to the area or fear of a perceived loss of democratic rights.

The case for local government consolidation assumes strengthening economic efficiencies from increasing scale, combined with resultant “scale benefits” such as strategic or technical competencies and synergies. For example, inconsistent or poorly integrated infrastructural development, and inconsistent engineering and development rules among the adjacent authorities are major arguments for amalgamation, given the delayed approach to the Heretaunga Plains urban development strategy.

In contrast, those opposed to consolidation claim that mergers result in the loss of community identity and local democracy, They challenge the notion that larger-sized units are more effective or efficient compared with smaller-sized units. Further, they assert that small-scale local government can both maximise citizen satisfaction, and be cost effective and outcome competent, when compared with various pathologies attributed to big government, such as being remote, unresponsive, and costly. One of the common fears is that the smaller centre, say Napier, will be ‘swallowed’ by the larger Hastings, or one is more rural than the other and the two have little in common.

Against this backdrop, Hawke’s Bay again considers with trepidation the prospect of local government mergers. Back in 1997, the independent Hawke’s Bay Local Government study recommended the amalgamation of Napier and Hastings. In 1989 the Elwood review considered and rejected such a consolidation, citing that there were already a large number of changes with the consolation of the county and boroughs into the two main population centres.

The 1997 process lead to the referendum for a merger of the twin cities which was rejected by Napier and approved by Hastings. So the effort failed.

Rules of the game
The current rules allow a council, or the minister, or 10% of the population of the affected areas, to initiate a proposal for local government reorganisation.  This proposal goes to the Local Government Commission  (LGC), who check whether the necessary threshold for the application are met, and then commence a consultative process with the various bodies involved, other adjacent councils and interested parties. The LGC can then decline to proceed further, or issue the draft proposal as submitted, or issue their own draft proposal as a variation on the original submission. 

More formal consultation then occurs with public hearings and a mandatory poll of electors. The critical point is that the LGC will only work within the confines of the current local government law in terms of what is a council, the roles within a council, and purposes of the Act. The legislation, even under a new Local Government Act, still requires a poll on any draft reorganisation scheme. At least 50% of the votes cast in each district must agree for the total scheme to take effect.

Which leads us to look at what Mr Yule has proposed.  In essence he wants to undertake this process outside of the current Local Government Act and rather than use the Local Government Commission process, to seek a special commission for much of what he is seeking is not provided for in the current process of local government reorganisation or even in the proposed Auckland super city draft legislation.

The Yule proposal, as it stands, is completely dependent on a special commission process. But remember, in Auckland this process controversially does not involve a poll. Curiously, he and the other mayors in Hawke’s Bay recently asserted in a joint press release  that it was a matter for the people to decide – “any change should be the wish of electors and not be imposed from outside.”  Yet Mayor Yule, if he goes outside the current reorganisation rules under the Local Government Act, sets up giving the process to the Government … not the people.

Current legislation would not allow such unusual concepts as vice mayors in Napier and Hastings … and I suggest for Hawke’s Bay this concept is both unnecessary and unlikely. I won’t even go into the effect of this type of thinking on perpetuating the separate kingdoms of Napier and Hastings. Further, the suggestion of specific iwi representation is perhaps a good idea, but again not in the current legalisation and apparently not currently in the Government’s thinking.

Amalgamation checklist
So, it is not as simple as saying here is an idea. Based on current legislation, as well as what is happening in Auckland, the Yule proposal needs more work and shows some haste in its logic. It suggests an unnecessarily cumbersome and potentially mixed set of structures. Surely a simple unitary council such as in Gisborne or Nelson is the answer. After all, there are only 150,000 people in Hawke’s Bay, who with modern communications can easily both get information and become involved.

A checklist for amalgamation will need to consider a number of factors:

• Strategic capacity – Does a new Hawke’s Bay local government provides a better capacity to deal with the big issues that confront our area such as climate change challenges, community development, promote integrated economic development and employment, ability to finance of infrastructure?

• Organisational improvements – Do we get more organisational capacity from a larger entity, such as internal specialisation, stronger delivery systems?

• Economic efficiency – Do we remove duplications and gain some cost savings through central back-office function rationalisation or the ability to deliver the big network operations such as water, wastewater, rubbish collections at a lower per unit cost? Where are the managerial economies and lower administration costs?

• Access and democracy – Is the new entity still able to pick up the local content of public issues, can it communicate properly in a timely manner, and is it accessible … can citizen participation be enhanced.

The goal of One Hawke’s Bay is too important to be made a political game.  And if the process is truly to involve the public, let’s keep it simple and focused under the current legislation, and win it by the merit of the arguments, not by fanciful structures that invite central Government to intervene with risky consequences. It can be done but let’s do our homework.

Remember also that the local government ‘problem’ is not just the structure, but the complex of systems and people that make it work.  Changing a structure and not addressing such issues as transparency, public accountability, fiscal management and rate increases will lead to little effective change at all … and simply ‘super’ wage packets for those involved.

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