22 Apr 2021

Waikato councils must be amalgamated - Chamber of Commerce

10:58 am on 22 April 2021

Grossly over-governed and desperately in need of reform is how the Waikato Chamber of Commerce views the region.

Hamilton City

The Chamber of Commerce is not advocating a super council but suggests that the process of amalgamation needs to be spurred on. Photo: http://www.hamiltonwaikato.com

Waikato has approximately 500,000 residents and is served by 12 councils with 136 councillors.

The chamber wants the region to have a united and stronger voice but one involving less bureaucracy.

It will not put a figure on what it sees as the optimum number of councils for the region but wants a discussion to start as soon as possible.

Waikato Chamber of Commerce chief executive Don Good is in no doubt what is wrong with the setup.

"Twelve replications, 12 governance bodies, 12 bureaucracies, 12 large cost-centres and 12 voices singing off separate song sheets."

Waikato Chamber of Commerce chief executive Don Good

Don Good. Photo: Supplied

Good said the chamber was not advocating a super council but suggested that the process of amalgamation needed to be spurred on.

There were also lessons to be learnt from the Auckland super council model, he said.

"It didn't all go absolutely swimmingly up there but from a business point of view, it's one homogenous area in terms of the rules and regulations. That makes it very easy for businesses to work with. We should be looking at the good, the bad and the ugly of Auckland coming together."

He said Waikato businesses were suffering from a disparity in council rules and regulations.

"Waikato has been driven by petty patch protection and business is finding the boundaries that are in place a the moment both artificial and arbitrary. They are costly to work with. They are very time consuming for business and they seem to be illogical and without a doubt unproductive."

Good said amalgamation was necessary and Waikato would benefit from it.

"Certainly business would benefit."

Hamilton mayoral candidate Paula Southgate

Paula Southgate. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate is not ruling out the need for amalgamation but does not believe it should be rushed.

He said there were a number of relevant tools councils could use to make governance more effective and efficient and amalgamation was just one of them.

"There is the opportunity for council-controlled organisations, local authority shared services for example."

She said looming issues such as water reform would see a change in focus by councils across the country.

"The shape and form of local government will probably have to change."

However, she said local democracy was still important.

"No one knows their local area as well as those people living in it, so there is an element of that, but I do believe that some things must change if we are going to get a scale of efficiency and economy for the ratepayers

"For example, the Three Waters to me does make sense that we join up in some form with our neighbouring councils or a bit wider because the cost will be too great even for a council like ours to bear on our own."

Southgate does not believe that having a number of different councils, often with different rules and regulations prevents economic growth in the region.

Waikato Regional Council chair Russ Rimmington said one super council for Waikato was foolish because the region was too big, running from the Coromandel to Taupō.

"The centres are different and have different kinds of requirements."

Rimmington agreed costs were high with having 12 councils, but any amalgamation must be up to local communities.

"I think the answer would be to have the smaller councils consider themselves and their populace to have a voluntary kind of merger perhaps, Waitomo, Ōtorohanga, that kind of area."

Massey University Public Management Group director Andy Asquith said local government was not about efficiency, but about effectiveness and that big was not always best.

"Business is fixated with profit and getting things done cheaply. Local government is not about any of those things. Local government is about engaging citizens in democracy and decision making."

He said instead of a merger, councils could standardise rules and regulations.

Dr. Andy Asquith, Massey University local government expert.

Andy Asquith. Photo: Supplied

Asquith said compared to other countries, New Zealand lacked local representation.

"New Zealand is very much under-councillored."

He said if councils did amalgamate then there needed to be a comprehensive system of local boards that had real power.

Asquith said what was not talked about was the calibre of the people that stood for council.

"You could amalgamate all the councils into one but you are still going to get the same names being elected"

The Waikato Chamber of Commerce has presented its arguments to all Waikato councils and Good believes the message was sinking in.

"The old adage that turkeys don't vote for Christmas and that would be a little unfeeling on many of the councillors who are highly intelligent people and they would actually understand the issues business have with the artificial boundaries that are within Waikato. They certainly want to look after their constituency and we fully understand that."

Good said the leadership for change must come from both local and central government.

He said the concept of amalgamation needed to be discussed and debated and councils needed to actually put forward ideas on how it could be done.

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