29 Mar 2009

Super-city plan sparks concerns over local democracy

3:12 pm on 29 March 2009

Fears have been expressed that the proposed super-council to govern Auckland could be too removed from its residents.

A royal commission on Friday announced its recommendation that the current eight councils be dissolved and replaced by one body. It would be led by a mayor who would oversee six elected councils, each with limited powers.

Local Government Minister Rodney Hide says the loss of some local representation is his only initial reservation about the commission's recommendation

Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee shares those concerns, but says he is happy about having a single mayor.

Mr Lee says the commission's model for Auckland is very similar to the regional council's own, but he is concerned about a potential lack of democracy.

Peter McKinley is director of the Local Government Centre at Auckland University of Technology and he says the role of super-city mayor would be a demanding one, requiring an individual with substance as well as charisma.

Local Government New Zealand president Lawerence Yule says he has concerns about the loss of local democracy and community representation under the plan, but has nevertheless already offered to help the Government with transitional arrangements should it agree to the super-city plan.

Mr Yule says any solution needs to be better than the current arrangements.

The commission's report calls for one council to own all the region's local body assets, and recommends one rating system and a mayor elected by the entire region.

The Labour Party's Auckland spokesperson, Phil Twyford, says his party has not yet decided if it supports the concept of a super-city.

The Green Party says it fears smaller communities in Auckland may lose their identities if a single super council structure is taken up.

Green MP Sue Bradford says work needs to be done so those communities can retain their identities, and have some power to influence events.

She says a supercity structure may have positive outcomes for transport planning and environmental management.

Auckland City Mayor John Banks says the royal commission has delivered 90% of his wishes and has again expressed his interest in seeking the role of super-city mayor.

However, Rodney Mayor Penny Webster is unhappy with the boundary and representation changes proposed for her district.

Ms Webster says Rodney will be poorly represented on the proposed council, with only one or two councillors. She says Rodney will lose its engine room, Orewa, and will not have the ability to argue effectively for crucial infrastructure projects.

Ms Webster says her council will consider taking itself out of Auckland Council.

Public Service Association national secretary Ricard Wagstaff says he is pleased the commission has not recommended job cuts.

Mangere MP Su'a William Sio says South Auckland ratepayers stand to lose benefits such as free entry to swimming pools under the plan.

Mr Sio says Manukau uses returns from assets such as Auckland Airport shares for ratepayers - including free entry to pools and other subsidised community developments - and is worried a super-council may stop that.

Mr Sio fears it will be hard for Pacific Islanders to be voted on to the proposed council. Their previous places of influence, such as community boards, will go, he says.

Report in detail

The commission has spent more than a year considering how the region's 1.4 million residents could be better served by their councils.

The 800-page report, details of which were released on Friday, recommends that the current eight councils be dissolved and replaced with an overseeing body called Auckland Council.

If the Government approves the plan, Auckland Council will hold all current council assets and employ all staff. At present, councils employ more than 6,000 workers.

The commission says Auckland Council would be headed by a mayor with greater powers than established mayoralties.

The 23-strong council would have 10 directly elected members and 10 from a second tier of six smaller local councils. It would also have three Maori seats.

Local democracy would be maintained by the six local councils - a new type of body acting for ratepayers but accountable to Auckland Council. They include Waitemata, Waitakere, Tamaki-makau-rau and Manukau as urban wards, and Rodney and Hunua as rural wards.

The recommended local councils cover areas similar to current local authorities. The biggest change would be for Tamaki-makau-rau, which would be the existing Auckland City but without the waterfront and city centre.

Community boards would be abolished with three exceptions - including Great Barrier and Waiheke islands.

The royal commission says savings from the new structure are likely to be $100 million a year. It says the cost of making the changes will be covered by those savings in about four or five years.

Commission chairperson Peter Salmon says it is clear the region needs change urgently and the proposal aims to bring value for money and recognise the different regional and local roles.

Mr Salmon says Auckland Council would also enable a closer, more efficient relationship with central government.

Government to consider report

Prime Minister John Key and senior Cabinet ministers met to discuss the report on Wednesday night, and Auckland's mayors were given their first glimpse of the report at midday on Friday.

Mr Key says that if the Government accepts the recommendations for a super-city, changes will be made in time for next year's local body elections.

He says the Government will consider the report over the next few weeks and put together a detailed response. It wants time to consider the options and for Aucklanders to have time to digest the information.

Mr Key says the Government will not become involved in who should be the super-city's mayor.